What is Ecoterrorism?
- The term “ecoterrorism” was first introduced by Ron Arnold in a 1983 article, where it was defined as “a crime committed to save nature” (Joosse 2012). The term became a household name in the 90’s with the increased activity of groups like Earth Liberation Front (ELF).
- In 2003 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defined “ecoterrorism” as “the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons” (Buell 2009).
- However, the definition of “ecoterrorism” changes depending on the stance of the person and the context in which it is used. Thus, when looked at from a more right perspective it is meant to stigmatize radical environmental activists, while from a more left stance it stigmatizes the “authoritarian state and corporate mistreatment of environment and/or animals” (Buell 2009). Nonetheless, in the majority of cases, the term “ecoterrorism” is used when referring to the criminal actions of environmental activists.
- In 2012, the FBI stated that ecoterrorist activists perpetrated more “terrorist” actions on U.S. soil than all other associated groups. (Carson, LaFree, & Dugan 2012) These actions have led to around “300 million dollars in property damage” between 2003 and 2008 (Baldwin 2008).
Criticism of the Term “Ecoterrorism”
- There has been much criticism regarding the term “ecoterrorism” and the context in which it is used. The majority of this criticism argues that it has been formulated as an attempt to give environmental activists a negative image.
- Many people argue that ecoterrorism is another way that the United States government and the FBI can target environmentalist activism so as to prevent the actions of those environmentalists from developing great public support. In addition, many would argue that environmental activists can also serve as scapegoats for the “war on terrorism”, especially as “in the wake of 9/11 the [U.S.] government needs scapegoats beyond Muslims, and people – often young, white and middle-class – with defined ideologies who target corporate America are easy and attractive game” (Vidal 2008).
- One of the supporters of this train of thought is the lawyer Lauren Regan who works with the Civil Liberties Defense Centre in Eugene, Oregon. When speaking about the actions of ecoterrorists and in particular those done by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), Regan said: “Eco-terrorism is what happened in Bhopal, India…Eco-terrorism is when Saddam Hussein blew up the oil rigs. These cases are acts of property destruction, pure and simple. The [US government’s] tactics are designed to scare and silence people who might speak out against the government normally.” (Vidal 2008)
- An article in 2012 by Carson, Lafree, and Dugan, was also critical of the term. After having looked at 1,069 criminal acts done by environmental and animal activist groups between 1970 and 2007, they stated that “classifying these cases as terrorism is misleading because supporters of environmental and animal rights extremists do not seek to injure or kill humans…it is incorrect to characterize incidents perpetrated by environmental and animal rights groups as terrorism because the vast majority involve minor property damage and do not target people” (Carson, LaFree, & Dugan 2012).
- Much of the criticism of the term “ecoterrorism” revolves around whether it is ecoterrorism or rather environmental radicalism. While both are forms of activism, radical activism is more associated with demonstrations and sometimes forceful actions, and is the main philosophy of the group Earth First! The ideology surrounding ecoterrorism overlaps that of radical environmentalism in some ways, but for the most part is a much more destructive and violent manner of activism, with arson as one of its most used tactics. Therefore, there is a difference between these two forms of activism.
- We do not condone ecoterrorism under any circumstances. The threat of people’s lives and the further destruction of the environment is not the way to stop environmentally destructive actions.
The Beginning of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)
- The ecoterrorist group called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) first began operating in the United Kingdom in 1992 after more radical members separated from Earth First!
- Earth First! is an environmental group which has been operating since the 1970’s, taking part in actions of civil disobedience and sabotage. The members who formed ELF, however, felt that these actions did not utilize enough force and thus were not sufficient in order to bring attention to the issue. Therefore, upon separating from Earth First! the members of ELF chose to use more illegal actions, including adding arson as one of their actions (Joosse 2012).
- ELF began in 1992 in the United Kingdom, however in 1993, it also spread to continental Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. Just a few years later, in 1996, ELF reached the United States, where it has since then committed numerous illegal actions. (Joosse 2012)
What is ELF?
- ELF is a faceless, non-hierarchical group with the intention of saving the environment through the use of mainly illegal acts, many of which include arson.
- The group ELF itself consists of many smaller “‘autonomous groups of people’ who are ‘anonymous not only to the public but also to one another’” (ADL 2005).
- In an article by Leader and Probst (2003), it was found that ELF , along with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), has taken part in around 600 criminal acts between 1996 and 2002, which have led to approximately $43 million in damages.
- As a result of the large number of illegal actions partaken under the name of ecoterrorism, in 2005 the top FBI official working on domestic terrorism, John Lewis, stated that ecoterrorism, and in particular ELF, is “the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat” (Joosse 2007).
- While ELF is a faceless group, for a few years during the late 1990’s Craig Rosebraugh and Leslie James Pickering were the spokespeople of ELF. During this period, Rosebraugh and Pickering would publicly give ELF credit for the many acts that it did. However, after the FBI raided Rosebraugh’s home in 2001, both Rosebraugh and then Pickering left their positions as spokespeople, returning ELF to a completely faceless group.
- In an interview in 2004, Pickering stated a part of both his and ELF’s ideology when he said: “Violence is a necessary element of an oppressive struggle…to overthrow an oppressive government… [ELF is] only part of a larger building revolutionary movement that won’t stop until it has a successful overthrow of this country” (ADL 2005).
- ELF’s mission can be summarized very nicely by Paul Joosse:
- “a) To inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment,
- b) To reveal and educate the public on the atrocities committed against the earth and all species that populate it,
- c) To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human or nonhuman” (Joosse 2012, 79)
- In addition, Craig Rosebraugh stated “ELF works to speed up the collapse of industry, to scare the rich, and to undermine the foundations of the state. We embrace social and deep ecology as a practical resistance movement… We take inspiration from Luddites, Levellers, Diggers, the Autonome squatter movement, the ALF, the Zapatistas, and the little people—those mischievous elves of lore…Let’s dance as we make ruins of the corporate money system” (Rosebraugh 2004, 20). Thus, Rosebraugh makes reference to the origin of the name ELF, as also representing the “elves” or, as Rosebraugh says, “the little people” who don’t make an impact when alone, but when they come together can bring about great change.
- The structure of ELF is a non-hierarchical, “leaderless resistance.” This entails that the members remain “faceless” and thus remain unknown (Joosse 2012, 75). In fact, many of the members within ELF remain unknown to even the other members of the very organization.
- With its non-hierarchical structure, ELF has “ no centralized organization or leadership” (Joosse 2012, 79). Furthermore, many actions done by ELF are actually acts committed by individuals who have chosen to do them under the name of the ELF, and thus have not been coordinated by the group as a whole. (Joosse 2012, 79) This loose, “faceless” form of organization makes it difficult for the FBI to stop ELF, as many times individuals with no previous connection to ELF commit crimes in the name of the group. In many ways this makes ELF “an amorphous movement” or one that is not clearly defined. (Leader and Probst 2003, 39)
- The actions of ELF are funded by allied organizations or wealthy and interested donors, many of whom remain anonymous. (Leader and Probst 2003, 43)
What are some of ELF’s actions?
- Since starting in 1992, ELF has realized many actions, several of which have been committed by individuals under the name of the group. These actions have many different motivations, including everything from fighting against “urban sprawl” (ADL 2005) to stopping research on genetically modified crops.
- Most of the ELF’s actions used force to accomplish their goals. Of these, arson is one of the most common tactics used. However, ELF also implements the use of, what it calls, “monkeywrenching,” which consists of vandalism, sabotage, and property damage. (Leader and Probst 2003, 41)
- ELF actions have targeted everything from ski resorts, to slaughterhouses, to research labs, to radio antennas, to factories. Many of these actions have been identified as being done by ELF due to the name ELF being sprayed onto or around the area targeted.
- Despite the large amount of violence and arson used in their actions, so far, ELF has been able to not injure or kill anyone (Joosse 2012, 78).
- To see a full list of all of ELF’s actions, go to the Timeline.
Criticism of ELF
- ELF has received much criticism over the years from not only the FBI and the government, but also from environmentalists and scientists.
- Such criticism includes comments made by:
- Dr. Steve Strauss, whose laboratory where he was researching how to genetically modify poplar trees was attacked by ELF activists, stated: “I don’t call them ecoterrorists anymore. They don’t deserve the ‘eco.’ They’re terror- ists against science”” (Joosse 2012, 85)
- Daniel Becker, who is the “director of the global warming and energy program at Sierra Club’s Washington head-quarters, argued that it was not worth discussing what may have driven the ELF actions because there could be no justification for criminal activity. And whatever their motivation, he said, it had nothing to do with the environment” (Baker 2001).
- Ron Arnold , leader of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE), stated that Elf and similar ecoterrorist groups are “as much a threat as foreign terrorism. These people are going to damage property and kill people”” (Joosse 2012, 87).
- John Lewis, the FBI’s Deputy Assistant Director, stated that ELF activists were “terrorists “in the truest sense”” (Joosse 2012, 89).