I was especially taken with an essay written by one member, 19-year-old Emily Kumpel from Baltimore, who wrote an article entitled In Defense of Radical Environmentalism. Excellent research, full discussion of opposing views, and precise argument in support of a political position that has many, many right-wing organizations screaming “terrorism” and foaming hysterically at the mouth — Google ‘radical environmentalism’ and you’ll unearth ten anti-environment right-wing wacko groups for every Greenpeace or PETA supporter.
Understandably, then, the site doesn’t ask for trouble by providing its intelligent young team’s e-mail addresses. Therefore I can’t write directly to Emily and thank her for her courage and energy in articulating a position that increasingly is the only one that makes sense to me: In a world that even the Pentagon says is headed for imminent eco-tastrophe, where so much of the power and wealth creating the problem is concentrated in a small elite obsessed with the insane and unsustainable pursuit of perpetual growth, we must start to sabotage the system intelligently without causing suffering.
Since I can’t converse with her directly, I thought I’d try something different. Following is a ‘virtual conversation’ consisting of the text of Emily’s essay (in black) and my thoughts and comments (in red):
In Defense of Radical Environmentalism
Are environmental activists justified in destroying human creations through acts of ecoterrorism if it means saving individual parts of the environment, and where, if anywhere, is the line drawn? Is that kind of activism constructive or destructive?
The immediate danger facing the environment and the human cause of this destruction are clear to many activists around the globe. Also acknowledged is that something must be done. However, there are many different types of environmentalists out there with a wide range of tactics and philosophies used to justify their actions and guide them in their defense of the wild. One movement of extreme environmental activism has been dubbed ìecoterrorismî or ìecotageî. Ecoterrorism is defined in the dictionary as ìterrorism or sabotage committed in the name of environmental causes, î while these groups themselves describe it as non-violent direct action. According to the FBI, eco-terrorism is ìthe use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.î David Foreman, the founder of a self-described ìradicalî environmental group Earth First!, asserts that, ìWe can have big wilderness, and we can reintroduce extirpated species, but unless the fact that there are way too many people on the earth is dealt with, unless the idea that the world is a resource for us to use is dealt with, unless humans can find their way home again, then the problems will continue.î
Foreman’s position is my own. In dealing with environmental issues, the Bush regime and the FBI twist the language to suit their own right-wing political agenda. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘sabotage’ are not at all the same thing. Terrorism, as the term suggests, involves filling people with fear for political purposes. Sabotage involves damaging infrastructure in a precise way to achieve a precise end. Radical environmentalists may define themselves as saboteurs, but anyone who would define himself as an ecoterrorist would make me suspicious — terrorism of any kind is anathema to and condemned by even the most radical environmental groups (if you don’t believe read their websites, linked below). [In the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I have replaced the word 'ecoterrorism' with 'radical environmentalism' in a few places in Emily's essay where I think the latter term is more appropriate, since that is, after all, the term she uses in the title of the essay.]
Many radical environmentalists ascribe to what is known as deep ecology, and their actions address the immediate need to protect what is left ñ preventing, for example, the logging of a particular forest or the death of a single whale ñ as well as suggesting a change in the fundamental way we think of ourselves and of our place in nature. As Foreman explained, ìÖwe had to offer a fundamental challenge to Western civilization.î The groupís motto is ìNo compromise in defense of Mother Earth.î
Just for clarity, deep ecology is not in itself a radical environmental philosophy, but rather an integrative one, which sees the whole planet as a single self-organizing system, a single organism. It’s not a large jump, of course, to then see any act that inflicts suffering to animals or damages the natural ecosystem as an attack against this single organism, an attack which must be repulsed, by radical means if necessary.
Earth First! uses ìconfrontation, guerrilla theater, direct action and civil disobedience to fight for wild places and life processes.î While they do not actually ìcondone or condemn monkey wrenching, ecotage, or other forms of property destruction,î they do provide a network for activists to discuss creative ways of opposing environmental destruction. According to Bill McKibben, ìEarth First! and the few other groups like it have a purpose, and that purpose is defense of the wild, the natural, the nonhuman.î However, there is a line between civil disobedience and non-violent direct action in that the latter includes monkey wrenching and criminal destruction of property. Other groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which broke off from Earth First! when others wanted to ìmainstreamî the group, and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are well known for their acts of ecotage. According to the FBI, the ELF and the ALF are ìserious terrorist threat(s).î Tactics include disabling logging machinery, placing activists in front of whaling ships, destroying airstrips, spiking trees, and arson.
See the right-wing language spin by the FBI here? Disabling logging machinery, blocking whaling ships, and spiking trees aren’t terrorism, they’re activism. Even the admitted actions of the ELF and ALF (read their websites before you condemn them or buy half the crap that’s written about them) — which include setting fire to an SUV dealership and a high-rise under construction in a wilderness area — are designed to reduce ecological damage and animal suffering, not to frighten people and alienate them from the movements’ goals.
How do these environmentalists justify destroying human creations for the sake of a single living thing or small forest? This movement finds its defense in deep ecology and ecocentric ethics, major religions and new age philosophy, and, sometimes, conventional wisdom.
In defense of radical environmentalism, I will put forward these actions that are dictated by the Earth Liberation Front Guidelines, which are as follows: ì1. To inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment. 2. To reveal and educate the public on the atrocities committed against the earth and all species that populate it. 3. To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human.î
The central goal behind radical environmentalist beliefs is to shift the focus away from humans and onto the entire ecosystem. McKibben describes Earth First! as ìone of the purest examples of putting the rest of creation ahead of exclusively human needs.î Changing the anthropocentric view of the environment is the heart of many environmental philosophies. However, these philosophies often dictate only how we think, not our actions. Radical environmentalists take this to heart and use traditionally drastic measures to accomplish their goals.
First, we as humans are not superior and therefore either all living things should be treated the same, or the whole of the community should come before the good of the individual. The first is a biotic view of ecology, incorporating Albert Schweitzerís notion of a ìreverence for life.î In resolving conflicts between man and nature, he suggests this order: 1. self-defense 2. proportionality 3. minimum wrong 4. distributive justice 5. restitutive justice. Radical environmentalists protect the life of both living beings and natural systems from human destruction when the human destruction is a function of our wants, not our needs. In Colorado, for example, radical environmentalists committed an incredibly costly act of ecotage, burning five buildings at the Vail Ski Resort in 1998. The ski resort was constructed despite the outcries of the public and environmentalists, as the company clear-cut what was supposed to remain untouched wilderness. While human property was destroyed, no humans or other living things were harmed. ìThey ask, why is more ski terrain, miles of roads, bathrooms and a warming house more important than the habitat of creatures man has already pushed to the brink of extinction?î This protection by ecotage ñ while extreme by many standards ñ is justified by Schweitzerís system. Humans had no claim to self-defense, the proportional gain for our species was not enough, there was no way to do a minimum wrong, and there is so little land left that there is no fair way to make up the destruction in another area. And, if we accept that all life should be respected and cared for, then we should do all we can to protect life from human destruction.
I see the Vail action as a desperate one, and I’m not sure it accomplished anything more than sending a message that when all the political, legal and economic chips are stacked against them, and radical environmentalists are left with only one final resort — symbolic action — they will take it.
This is the point at which I become ambivalent about radical action, in defense of any fundamental belief and even in the face of an outrageous wrong. I still cling to the fundamental belief, summarized in Jon Schell’s book The Unconquerable World, that non-violence is always the better way, because (a) the Vail arson undoubtedly alienated more people than it won over, and (b) this action did not prevent or rectify the damage that had been done. In other words (as much as I hate to use this phrase, the principle by which the neocons operate) the ends didn’t justify the means. If the Vail action had actually ‘worked’ — if the builders had consequently, because of massive public outcry or personal epiphany, conceded the ski resort was a mistake, dismantled it and preserved it as wilderness forever (as if that was going to happen) — then there might have been some justification for the act. Sabotage is, after all, an act of war. And being a pacifist (not inconsistent with being an activist), I believe war is the last resort. As Schell puts it:
Lovers of freedom, of social justice, disarmers, peacekeepers, civil disobeyers, democrats, civil rights activists and defenders of the environment, legions in a single multiform cause…[wage] a revolution against violence — loosely coordinated, flexible, based on common principles and a common goal rather than a common blueprint — [that] would encompass a multitude of specific plans, including ones for disarmament, conventional as well as nuclear; democratization and human rights; advancement of international law; reform of the UN; local and regional peacekeeping and peacemaking; and social and ecological programs that form the indispensable content of a program of non-violent change. To neglect the last of these would be to neglect the lesson that campaigns of non-cooperation are empty without constructive programs. Justice for the poor (victims of “structural violence”) and rescue of the abused environment of the earth (victims of human violence done to other living creatures) are indispensable goals.
If I give up hope that Schell’s pacifist manifesto can work, and lose my idealism, then I am moving into the territory of extremism, and acknowledging that, when all else fails, the ends sometimes do justify the means. That is the same argument made by extremists of the opposite political stripe — the Bush regime’s lying, destroying a nation, bankrupting the American economy, wrecking the UN and America’s reputation worldwide, and killing and injuring tens of thousands of troops and civilians to get rid of one man they personally didn’t like. It’s the same argument that religious wackos use to justify bombing abortion clinics.
This is a line I won’t cross lightly. There is no way back from the resultant abyss. And unlike those who have always romanticized war and extremism as martyrdom, I recognize it as something much nastier, and only to be taken when the inevitable result of inaction is much worse than taking extreme action. And if and when I ever cross that line I’m damned well going to do it right — sabotaging the system intelligently without causing any more suffering than absolutely necessary (like nature does in similar extreme situations), to bring about massive and immediate change. If the means are that ugly, the ends better be damned beautiful.
In one of the most well known defenses of environmentalism, Aldo Leopold says that, ìA thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.î We have an obligation to uphold the stability of the system. Radical environmentalism serves to protect the biotic community using methods that, while destroying human creations, still do not benefit the community. Human creations are not included as a part of this biotic community, and most methods of ecotage in the environmental movement serve to protect wild areas from human expansion. Any infringement by humans into this area would disrupt our ecosystemís integrity, stability, and beauty; therefore, it is wrong. Radical acts are consequently right because they protect those values.
The land ethic view of environmental philosophy incorporates both living and nonliving entities, and it puts the stability of the community above individual lives. In this belief, humans have no superiority in nature, and we, as humans, are responsible for righting our wrongs ñ for example, reintroducing species to an area if we caused their extinction. The strongest criticism of this approach is also the strongest support for ecotage; it ìcondones sacrificing the good of individuals to the good of the whole,î which is indeed just what the movement is doing. Bill McKibben also suggests that ìindividual suffering ñ animal or human ñ might be less important than the suffering of species, ecosystems, the planet.î
The FBI considers these radical organizations to be domestic terrorist groups, and many mainstream environmentalists working to protect the same wilderness areas are opposed to monkey wrenching and other acts of sabotage. Environmentalists, politicians, business leaders, and the public alike have all brought up many arguments against the use of ecotage. Some argue that we as humans are a part of nature and our evolution has led us to superiority over the rest of the environment. Therefore we should be in control of the environment, letting our own natural evolution take its course. By downsizing our lives to preserve the environment we are going against the natural course of things
Radical environmentalists reply that we are addicted to consumerism as well as growth and expansion. Just because that is the way it has always been does not mean that it is right; evolution changes things. Perhaps our evolution is not in taking control of the earth, but in learning to stop our growing and settle down. In “Ecological Literacy”, Orr states that economic growth is the target of our society because growth is ìthe normal state of things.î However, our natural resources are finite, and can only hold so many people and offer so much, therefore, economic growth has to stop at some point as well. People do things because that’s just the way it is and how it’s always been . ìAnd we donut want to change,î McKibben suggests. ìJim wants to log as he always has. I want to be able to drive as I always have and go on living in the large house I live in and so on.î As a result we have begun to decline as human beings by staying the same, because material goods are no longer fulfilling and there is no more meaningful work left to be done. The cultural sickness dubbed ìaffluenzaî is used to describe our addiction to material goods and the absurdity of it all. Ecotage aims in part to contribute to reducing our lifestyles and the material goods and lifestyles within.
Orr warns against social traps that ìdraw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confronts them with consequences that the victims would rather avoid.î By this definition, destruction of the environment and working to preserve nature within the system is a long-term social trap while sabotage is not, as it promotes long term sustainability. Orr also suggests that the current Westphalian system of political organization is no longer practical in a global society, and one solution might be a re-spiritualizing of the masses to change the way we think. Deep ecology, the philosophy that most radical environmentalists associate themselves with, also encourages this change of mass opinion. Leopold also suggests that just because things can be done doesn’t mean that they should be done, and offers a replacement of the current world view with an organic view, based on a religious or spiritual change.
Leopold’s view is therefore fundamentally similar to Schell’s. This moderate view is one which, I think, most of us want to believe in. The point at which we part company is whether this moderate view is still tenable in 2004.
Schmookler in “Out of Weakness” says civilization has engendered a “sick consciousness” which must be replaced with “a consciousness of a very different sort”. The ingredients he proposes for this state of consciousness include humility, tolerance, transcendence, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. McKibben further emphasizes that our future generations are reliant on our care of the environment and we have an obligation to them. The United Nations report “Our Common Future”, claims that, ìwe act as we do because we can get away with it.î
Others, especially more traditional environmentalists, argue that extreme action is simply not pragmatic in the society in which we live. According to this argument, radical environmentalism ignores the culture and the political system we work in, and we cannot just disregard that. They argue that radicals make it hard for other environmental activists working from within the system because they lose respect for all other environmental causes. In our current political system, there are so many things that are going on in voter’s minds and environmentalism is only one of many. Equating environmentalism with extremism is not going to help gain any votes.
Amen. But this creates two problems. The first is that the right wing, with the help of the compliant mass media oligopoly, dwells only on the actions of environmental extremists, to distract public attention from their own extremist actions. In fact, they falsely ascribe things (like the California wildfires) to radical environmentalists in a cynical attempt to discredit environmentalists of all stripes. The second problem is that, as long as we hold out hope that a new ‘state of consciousness’ will emerge to help us deal with eco-tastrophe, the longer we’ll be lulled into inaction and the harder the problems will be to solve once we do act. And if it is already too late, or if we conclude later that it’s too late, then we still won’t act, and the consequences of that are too horrific to imagine.
However, according to an ABC reporter who investigated the ecotage movement, environmental extremists have exhausted all of the traditional options before turning to destruction. ìÖthough there are many many environmental groups out there who use traditional approaches like lobbying Congress and protesting timber sales, ELF regards mainstream groups as sell-outs, and corporate puppetsÖthey saw these techniques fail time and time again to stop the march of industry on nature.î The Earth First! website asks readers if they are tired of, ìnamby-pamby environmental groupsî and ìoverpaid corporate environmentalists who suck up to bureaucrats and industry.î Radical environmentalists are not looking to uphold the system and work within it, but are instead looking to change people’s attitudes and see radical actions as the only way to both protect the immediate needs of the environment and drastically inspire a change of attitude. These acts probably do make environmentalists as a whole lose credibility in the political and economic world, though radical environmentalists argue that the political, economic, and moral world we currently live in is what itself needs to be changed and working within the system will not accomplish that.
Radical environmentalism does challenge the way we think about the system and many activistsí view of how to work within the system. Yet their methods have proven effective in saving individual wild lands and living beings.
Another argument against radical environmentalism is that even though many activists say that they aren’t harming human lives, destruction of property is destroying people’s jobs and is therefore destroying livelihoods. A contributor to Nature magazine described Earth First!’s methods as showing a îdeep insensitivity to human suffering.î One of the newer arguments against ecotage in the post September 11th United States is that if foreign terrorism is not acceptable, then domestic terrorism like ecotage is not acceptable either. Some environmentalists are even accused of ìenvironmental fascism.î
Ecotage is not terrorism. But that is the label that right-wingers put on environmental activism of all stripes. In the climate of fear that the Bush regime has whipped up, it’s convenient and easy to do, especially in a country ‘dumbed down’ by the media. Fascism, however, is an integrated totalitarian corporate and government state that imposes its elite will on everyone else. Mussolini’s word for fascism was, in fact, ‘corporatism’. So the term ‘environmental fascism’ is a non-sequitur.
But many also recognize that the environmental destruction that humans are creating because of our view of the earth as a resource for our own use is threatening our health and that of our children. Richard Falk calls for tougher strategies in order to produce results, suggesting that we, ìengage concrete sources of resistance, including human depravity and greedÖmoral concern is serious only if it includes active participation in ongoing struggles against injustice and suffering.î McKibben says of deep ecology’s reductionist approach, ìÖthey are extreme solutions, but we live in an extreme time…If industrial civilization is ending nature, it is not utter silliness to talk about ending ñ or, at least, transforming ñ industrial civilization,î and that ìthe thinking is more radical than the action.î Many actions we collectively take, such as the nuclear arms buildup and our cultural obsession with fast food and Coca-Cola, are all considered irrational, yet we do it. So why not radical environmentalism? Links have been made between slavery and today’s exploitation of natural resources such as fossil fuels and animals. Radical actions ended slavery, and radicalism powered the civil rights movement, native independence, and many other great progressive moves throughout history. So why not radical environmentalism? Nature is dying, according to McKibben, and he urges us to give the end of nature our best fight. ìWe are different from the rest of the natural order, for the single reason that we possess the possibility of self-restraint, of choosing some other way.î
And the suggestions to crack down on ecoterrorism post 9-11 have not worked. Richard Berman, the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, asked Congress to block funding to radical environmentalist groups, much like it did to the Al Qaeda network. He asked that their nonprofit status be taken away, or that groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine that have supposedly given support to radical environmentalist groups in the past be reprimanded in some way. However, this proposal did not gain much support. So far, the ELF and ALF members have been very effective in avoiding the authorities because they are so decentralized and act within cells of one to several members. Funding does not seem to be a key issue for these groups.
While radical environmentalists describe themselves as subscribers to deep ecology, I find that the strongest arguments to justify their actions instead come from a mixture of many environmental philosophies. Indeed, based on any view of the environment that puts the emphasis away from humans, I find it hard not to support the use of radical environmentalism to prevent destruction.
Yet I also feel myself so entrenched in this system of the way it has always been that I find it hard to advocate acts of sabotage against the political and economic structure of our world. I think that acts of ecotage are entirely justified and are, indeed, both necessary and effective, yet I cannot imagine myself being able to actually commit acts of ecotage. Looking at radical animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, I entirely disagree with most of their tactics, and yet, it was their tactics that caused me to become vegan. Like many supporters of ìextremeî environmental activists, I may disagree with the destructive and damaging nature of such tactics, yet I cannot argue with their effectiveness.
PETA is an interesting paradox. As I’ve reported before, they have moved beyond the position of avoiding alienating the very people they would like to persuade, to a position that sees moderates as simply part of the problem. By being provocative, even outrageous, their goal is to radicalize enough moderate environmentalists to mobilize large-scale action — legal, political, social and ecotage — for animal rights. The fact that for every radical environmentalist they create, they drive three moderates away from their cause doesn’t bother them, since in their view the moderates weren’t helping the cause anyway. Again, it’s an end justifies the means philosophy. It troubles me, as it does Emily, but I can’t argue with its effectiveness either. PETA has one of the largest memberships of any environmental group and they got there by generating buzz and heat for their ideas.
Although I’m not a member of PETA, I find their position more defensible than that of another environmental extremist camp I call the Environmental Survivalists. This movement has its roots in Malthusian times, and its members believe that, yes, eco-tastrophe is near, but only the prepared will survive when the rest perish. So their answer is essentially ‘fuck everyone else, I’m going to build a cache of food and water and hide out until everyone else kills themselves’. They live at that strange point where the political spectrum curves back upon itself and the left-wing neo-primitivists (those who retreated to the hills with Ehrlich after The Population Bomb was printed, and those that are doing so again today in some environmental groups I’m associated with) become indistinguishable from the right-wing salvationists (the religious cults, anarcho-libertarians and militias arming themselves for the coming Armageddon). These groups spout forth the fatalism of the Unabomber. I hope I never feel the situation is that hopeless.
So where does this leave us? Most of us are perched on the cliff illustrated in the diagram above, sometimes getting close to the edge but unwilling to make the leap from radicalism to extremism. I believe the most intelligent approach to take right now is to hedge our bets. We need to be active in support of environmental causes and principles, working alongside moderates. We need to encourage and give the philosophy that Schell and Leopold espouse a chance to take hold, and that probably means avoiding actions that will tend to alienate moderates, especially if they ‘don’t justify the means’. But at the same time, we need a Plan B in the likely event that this won’t work in time. We need to develop a concerted and focused program of sabotage that will bring about radical environmental change quickly and effectively with an absolute minimum of suffering. I have no idea what that would entail, but I’m quite sure that a lot of people are working on it, and human ingenuity knows no bounds. There are probably already ideas out there on how we can sabotage pipelines, refineries and hydro dams without damaging the environment further in the process. There are probably already ideas out there on how we can sabotage factory farms without causing even more suffering to the animals imprisoned in them. There are probably already ideas out there on how we can reduce human fertility quickly in a non-discriminatory way, without causing suffering to those already alive, and without also reducing the fertility of other closely-related species. I’m sure nature is already developing the next human poxvirus to help the cause.
Thanks, Emily, for your excellent essay. Peace, everyone.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Buckminster Fuller)
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)