A Critical Analysis of the State's Definition of "Ecological Terrorism"

By David Nickles on Thursday, 13 February 2014, hits: 21400

This article is intended to serve as a crash course in some radical perspectives on ecological struggle, in order to lay the foundation for future writings on ecological resistance and entheogens. 

Author’s Note

While the following article focuses on the relationship between the state, its shareholders, and ecological activists, much of the framing, narratives, and propagandizing can be easily applied to the War on [some people who use certain] Drugs. The parallel manners in which dominant narratives (and their wide-ranging repercussions) are framed by politicians and media figures in both arenas are easily observable and evidence certain functions of the state apparatus. This article is intended to serve as a crash course in some radical perspectives on ecological struggle, in order to lay the foundation for future writings on ecological resistance and entheogens. Ecological struggle is inherently tied to entheogenic rituals within many cultures around the world. The utilization of entheogens to open ourselves to these struggles, catalyze our own action with regards to them, and create rituals that can help sustain the long-term engagement necessary for such work cannot be overstated.

Additionally, it bears mentioning that since the writing of this article, numerous troubling issues have come to light regarding the viewpoints on gender identities and organizational hierarchies held by some authors of one of the texts this article cites heavily. While several problematic stances were already explicitly presented in the book, they were viewed as tertiary to the purpose for which the text was utilized. This text was utilized due to its succinct bundling of a vast array of statistics, historical incidents, and comprehensive approach to ecological struggle. The use of this text is not a tacit endorsement of any of these viewpoints or the authors who hold them.



Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and a man who held a doctorate of social philosophy, once stated, “Power is the ability to define phenomena…and then make these phenomena act in a desired manner.” (McCartney, 1992, p. 120) This statement underscores both the subjective nature of personal realities, as well as the ability for those realities to be controlled by entities that wield power. The implications of this statement are of critical importance when examining sociopolitical phenomena, especially when dealing with interactions where the state and its interests (such as corporations), and non-state actors are diametrically opposed. One of the most compelling cases, set amidst the economic decline and global ecological ruin of late capitalism, is the state’s narrative that certain activist groups engage in ecological terrorism.

The term “ecological terrorism,” or “ecoterrorism,” is defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 2002) as, “the 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.” The coining of ecoterrorism is generally attributed to Ron Arnold in a 1983 interview in Reason magazine, where he defined it as a "crime committed to save nature." (Arnold, 1983, p. 32) Arnold was the executive vice president of the mining and timber industry think tank, Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Since the start of the intensive crackdown on ecological activism, in the form of political legislation, infiltration, and overt sabotage by the U.S. government in 2002, commonly referred to as the “Green Scare,” ecological activists have increasingly had “terrorism enhancement” penalties added to their sentencing, resulting in disproportionately long prison sentences for convicted activists. (McBay, Keith, & Jensen, 2011) The use of the “terrorism” label to augment punishments for these acts of resistance, as well as to create a climate which delegitimizes and intimidates ecological activists, begs an analysis of the term “ecoterrorism” and its application in legislative, political, and social contexts.


Analysis of “Ecoterrorism” Terminology

In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” (Orwell, 1946, p. 1) In examining this quote, one possible explanation for the usage of ecoterrorism is that state shareholders, such as major corporations, have a vested profit interest in labeling property destruction aimed at halting ecological devastation as “terrorism.” As Orwell’s quote implies, such terminology drastically affects the public’s conceptualizations of what ecological terror looks like—implicating activists, while leaving definitions of what government and industry engage in as hazy and undefined. Such labClearcuteling not only makes ecological activism conceptually linked to acts of terrorism, and the otherness and stigma such actions carry, but also creates  political and legal environments in which there is a context for enforcing harsher penalties against individuals engaged in such actions.

The given definition of the label, “ecological terrorism,” seems somewhat at odds with the actual words used to create the terminology. Given Merriam-Webster’s definitions of ecology as, “the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment,” and terrorism as, “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion,” the FBI definition and subsequent labeling of resistance or opposition to industrial endeavors as “ecoterrorism” appears woefully inaccurate; one might say, it is an oxymoronic term. In fact, if ecoterrorism is to be applied as a meaningful and readily-understandable label, based on the words used in its creation, a much more fitting definition could be, “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion against the totality of relations between organisms and their environment.” With this definition of ecoterrorism, the doublespeak of the state becomes readily apparent. We can see that the state shareholders—individuals and groups who invest large financial sums to effect policy decisions on local, state, and national levels—in tandem with the state’s enforcement agencies seek to create a unique political definition of ecoterrorism, which is divorced from the socially-accepted and common-sense meaning of the words, in order to promote their own self-interest. The reality is that both the corporations and the enforcement agencies are engaged in ecological destruction and terror. However, by creating this new term, that utilizes the words that describe its own actions, and assigning them a new political meaning, the state is able to frame and control public discourse around ecological destruction and the activists working to prevent it.


Deep Ecology and Resistance to Ecological Destruction

Environmental activism, whether radical or not, stems from a desire to protect and conserve the planetary ecosystems that sustain all life on Earth. Deep ecology is the understanding that all ecosystems on Earth are interconnected and equally necessary for the continuation of life on this planet. It takes the position that human beings are not entitled to reduce the richness and diversity of these ecosystems, except to satisfy vital human needs. Deep ecology contends that the infinite-growth models presented by capitalist economic theories are not valid and that expecting to experience increasingly higher standards of living is both impossible and undesirable. Deep ecologists and activists who ascribe to similar modalities of belief argue that individuals who recognize the state of ecological ruin that exists, and are aware of humanity’s role in creating that ruin, are obligated to take actions to stop or change the system responsible for that ruin. (McBay, et al., 2011)


Industrial Civilization as Ecological Terrorism

In order to examine the motivations behind the actions that the state has labeled as ecoterrorism, the context of the global industrial paradigm in which these acts occur must first be examined. The existence of industrial civilization is predicated on the use of material resources to create commodities for mass-consumption, and is inextricably bound up with capitalism. While some may claim that industrial civilization has created technological wonders that make life safer, more comfortable, and more efficient, these assertions beg the questions of, “How,” and, “For whom?” The products of industry are available to a relatively small minority of individuals and are created through processes that are destructive to both natural systems and human beings. (McBay, et al., 2011) Industrial achievements, such as the creation of MRI machines, x-ray technologies, pacemakers, and a plethora of other medical technologies may certainly be lauded, but the environmental and human costs of these accomplishments are too high and the totality of the benefits enjoyed by too few to justify the continuation of the global industrial paradigm.

Ultimately, industrial civilization is destroying the planet by demolishing the interconnected individual ecosystems that create the global biosphere. This is not an oversight of regulating bodies, and cannot be fixed by “sustainable” industrial practices. This is the very nature of industrial processes, especially when linked to capitalism—environmental degradation represents the logical progression of the industrial paradigm.

The sight of residents in Dimock, Pennsylvania, setting their well water ablaze; of oil-drenched marine life washing ashore in Pensacola, Florida; of mountaintops being blasted into nothingness outside of Whitesville, West Virginia—these are the images of true ecological terrorism. These are the victims of an increasingly globalized society that offers so much to so few. The same industrial actions that are used to sustain an exponentially growing global population—to feed, clothe, and shelter people (who can afford to purchase food, clothes, and shelter), and to bring technological trinkets to a tiny global minority (in order to keep them entertained and distracted)—cause untold death and destruction across the planet. The fact of the matter is quite simple, if terrifying to acknowledge for most, due to its implications; industrial civilization is terrorizing the planet.


Coal. Coal is the backbone for sustaining industrial civilization. So much so, that it is considered an economic backstop to price-inflation expected with the global realization of peak-oil. Mountaintop removal mining (MTM) involves literally blasting away the summit of a mountain to access the coal resources contained within its geological formations. Scientific studies have shown that MTM not only destroys biodiversity, but also contaminates watersheds, in manners that cannot be mitigated or repaired. Additionally, open-pit coal mining involves huge quantities of water which are obtained by coal companies purchasing local surface or groundwater supplies, which are rarely replenished. Capitalist logic dictates that, due to the private economic costs coal companies would incur in attempting to restore the water they contaminate, the public must bear the environmental costs of these actions. (Galuszka, 2012)

In addition to its extraction process, the use of coal to create electricity creates additional ecological terror. The combustion of coal is considered to be the single largest output of CO2 by industrial technologies. The burning of coal releases around twenty toxic chemicals into the air in addition to several radioactive isotopes. The World Health Organization cites one million deaths globally each year due to coal pollution. Coal is the largest source of electricity, worldwide. (Galuszka, 2012) It is a staple of industrial society; as is the ecological terror its use creates.


Petroleum. Petroleum products are some of the most environmentally destructive necessities of industrial civilization. Most obvious are the horrors associated with the calamities that inevitably occur during the extraction and transportation processes. However, the refinement, use, and byproducts of these petroleum distillates and hydrocarbons all carry an inherent ecological cost. While the British Petroleum disaster on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 highlight the shocking magnitude of potential disasters involving crude oil, there are numerous hidden dangers in the multitude of petroleum products derived from crude oil. (McBay, et al., 2011)

Petroleum derivatives are present in consumer goods ranging from automobiles to food wrappers. While hybrid automobiles are increasingly being billed as using less gasoline than their non-hybrid counterparts, everything from the plastic paneling of the dashboard, to the bumpers, the tires, and the manufacturing plants that assemble these vehicles requires various types of petroleum products. Over fifty-percent of the waste associated with automobiles occurs during the production stage. Additionally, chemicals such as Bisphenol A, which were once considered to be non-toxic by the FDA, have recently been declared unsafe for use in baby bottles, despite still being used in food wrappers throughout the U.S. (McBay, et al., 2011)


Shale Gas. In response to dwindling coal and petroleum resources, the energy industry has created a new form of energy extraction to obtain shale gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of natural gas extraction, whereby highly pressurized water, containing sand and patent-protected slurries of chemicals is pumped underground in order to create fractures in shale, a porous sedimentary rock. By creating these fractures, hydrocarbon gas is released from the rock and is collected and sold by the drilling company. The natural gas extracted by fracking is often billed as being a cleaner fuel source than standard gasoline, and it does, in fact, burn cleaner. However, the process of fracking carries many inherent dangers. (Adlesic, Fox, & Gandour, 2010)

First, the actual fracking process introduces stress to underlying geological formations, many of which are in areas where such stress does not naturally occur. Second, the introduction of fracking fluid underground, in order to release the gas, leaves behind large quantities of solution that include benzene, methanol, ethylene glycol, and a number of other toxic chemicals, in addition to radioactive isotopes. Even when a well site is tapped out, this fluid cannot be retrieved in its entirety. Third, the actual method of gas extraction, fracturing shale rock and releasing natural gas, is not foolproof. In many cases, the process and equipment designed to release and capture the natural gas does not function as planned. This can be due to unexpected geological behavior or design flaws in the actual fracking rig. Thus, natural gas can contaminate aquifers, wells, and other sources of once-potable water. Finally, all of the “fracking fluid” that is used to create the fractures and allow for natural gas extraction must be disposed of. The methods for disposal of this incredibly toxic fluid include open air evaporation, condensate tanks which allow for evaporation of aromatic hydrocarbons, and illegal dumping, either into natural bodies of water or at water treatment facilities that are not equipped to filter out the polycyclic hydrocarbons or radioactive isotopes that are a standard component of the mix. (Adlesic, et al., 2010)

In spite of the relatively short existence of these modern fracking techniques and the limited time to carry out meaningful scientific studies, significant evidence has already been found which correlates fracking with earthquakes in regions that were geologically stable prior to the introduction of this process. (Holland, 2011) Additionally, in states such as Pennsylvania and New York, numerous households have found evidence that fracking fluids or natural gas have contaminated their wells and sources of drinking water. (Osborn, Vengosh, Warner, & Jackson, 2011)


Sustainable Industry and Greenwashing

Many campaigns are currently underway to convince the public that they can “go green” by “voting with their dollars” and purchasing products that are “environmentally friendly.” This is further evidence of the attempts at mass-deception by the shareholders of the state. Greenwashing, or attempting to present products and policies as ecologically safe, is utilized to divert human power to consumer choices; choices that ultimately serve to strip the population of its agency and to reinforce the industrial corporations invested in ecological destruction. The logic of capitalism demands that corporations maximize their profits while treating the natural environment as an externality. (McBay, 2011) Ecologically safe industry is an impossibility. Industrial processes, whether extracting and refining natural resources, manufacturing complex electronics and transportation systems, or producing food through large-scale monoculture farming, are inherently at odds with ecological systems.


Alternative, “Sustainable” Energy Sources. As societies around the globe begin to acknowledge the environmentally destructive features of traditional fossil fuels and the technologies that rely on them, “sustainable” energy is being presented by governments and corporations as the alternative powerhouse for the future of industrial civilization. (McBay, et al., 2011)  Often ignored in these presentations are the ecological costs of these so-called sustainable technologies. One of the frequently cited alternatives to traditional hydrocarbon energy is wind power. However, this “alternative” carries its own ecological and social costs, and inflicts its own terror on ecosystems, especially in its production.

Wind turbines are often presented as a necessary component for sustaining industrial civilization. However, even ignoring the not in my backyard (or NIMBY) arguments that inevitably crop up when individuals have to make decisions about where to actually place the structures, there are several obviously destructive facets of producing wind turbines that are rarely mentioned in mainstream discussions on wind power. The first issue is the rare earth metals that are necessary in order to produce wind turbines. These materials include neodymium, an element without which the turbines would lack their necessary magnets, as well as dysprosium, which is utilized by many of the motors found in the turbines. Both elements are mined and refined exclusively in China and pose significant ecological threat in all stages of extraction and refinement. Additionally, in order to erect wind turbines, large quantities of concrete are needed to create stable foundations. Every pound of concrete that is produced, releases a pound of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (McBay, et al., 2011)

Of course, examined through the lens of capitalist logic, this is perfectly acceptable—the damage done to the earth today, to produce less damaging means of energy and goods production in the future, is justifiable by the fact that less future damage will be done. However, even if this were justifiable solely for energy production, the question of, “What is that energy being used for?” must be asked. As long as it is being used to sustain the systems of mass-production and consumption that dictate policy today, it can hardly be called sustainable. After all, all industrial production requires raw materials of some sort and generates some degree of waste. Consumerism is not Necessity; consumer choices are not Freedom; industrial technologies are not Progress. They are simply the means to the ends for a small group of corporate shareholders to generate wealth and perpetuate a system in which they exercise disproportionate control.


Ineffectiveness of Consumer-Based Activism. In critiquing the underlying racism she observed in the feminist movement, Audre Lord stated, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” (Lorde, 1984, p. 112) While this quote has been misapplied by numerous liberal critics of radical actions, it is quite fitting when examining consumer “activism.” Large numbers of “organic” and “natural” food brands are wholly owned subsidiaries of much larger corporations that are profiting tremendously from ecological destruction. Every “green” product that consumers buy from these corporations increases the net worth of the company and both incentivizes and enables these entities to continue their actions. However, when it comes to divesting, individual purchasing carries little to no weight for these corporate megaliths. The vast majority of resources are used by corporations and militaries, which are both intimately tied to the state. (McBay, et al., 2011)

It is, in part, for this reason—the fact that individual choices do not represent a large enough market share to affect political or economic decisions—and in this context, that direct resistance to industrial destruction, has become increasingly common in both the U.S. and around the world. Many activists have seen that “nonviolent” protests, hunger strikes, and consumer-based campaigns do not achieve meaningful results. Additionally, given the state of the global ecosystem and the projections of environmental scientists, Earth is either at or beyond the precipice of irreversible ecological damage. Thus, the best outcome that proponents of the most radical changes in global infrastructure could reasonably hope for is to minimize the coming ecological catastrophe. (McBay, et al., 2011)


The Necessity of Direct Action

One could argue that with protest largely ineffective (in part, due to the criminalization of dissent that has taken place since 2001, under the guise of protecting citizens from terrorism), the only other socially-sanctioned option for change is in the political process. However, due to campaign finance deregulation, many politicians are beholden to corporate interests, and subsequently prevented from acting on or engaging with the will of their human constituents. The effects of corporate interests in politics expand even beyond individual politicians, to the very agencies that theoretically exist in order to protect the environment from the uninhibited interests of corporations profiting from environmental destruction. Under President Barack Obama, who was engaged in the most highly funded elections in U.S. history, 84% of environmental regulations have been watered down, scrapped or changed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, in the name of budgetary management. (Galuszka, 2012)

This breakdown in regulatory policy, funding, and efficacy, combined with the failure of culturally accepted and proscribed means of dissent has led to an increase in acts that the state brands ecoterrorism. (McBay, et al., 2011) The failure of the state to rectify ecological destruction that has wide-ranging individual and societal costs, while logical given the investments of its corporate shareholders in such destruction, creates a power vacuum around an issue of dire importance. The ongoing campaign of terror against ecological systems by corporations who are sheltered by the state has led some activists to engage in direct action against the source of that terror, rather than attempting to use the mechanisms of the system that is safeguarding the perpetrators.


Non-Violent vs. Effective Action. Despite the lack of effective methods to meaningfully ameliorate industrial practices present within the structures of the U.S. government, many “non-violent” activists claim that property damage is violence and that non-violent civil disobedience is the only acceptable form of resistance to state violence. (McBay, et al., 2011) This opinion presents a view that is both privileged and stunted. Corporations have no incentive to stop engaging in ecologically destructive action, and their actions have a direct impact on individuals and ecosystems. To tell someone whose water has been poisoned by fracking that the only acceptable means of recourse is to seek restitution through a legal system that is slanted in favor of those who have large sums of money, is to remove their agency. If it is even possible to be monetarily compensated for the health effects of ingesting chemicals associated with fracking, it requires significant amounts of time and money to pursue a legal case against major corporations. The fact that the state labels the only available means of exercising agency by oppressed and disenfranchised communities as terrorism, even though those actions are merely in response to the ecological devastation inflicted on them by state shareholders, is further evidence of the state’s willful neglect of its responsibilities. When “non-violent” activists use othering language and attempt to excise “violent” elements from sociopolitical movements (such as “mainstream” environmental activists condemning property destruction as violence, and the perpetrators as criminals), they further the state’s agenda and legitimize the state’s power.

When considering political activism, the question should not be, “Are these actions violent,” but, “Are these actions effective?” This is especially salient given the wide-ranging and often incongruent definitions of non-violence that can be found within the non-violent activist community. (McBay, et al., 2011) If the goal of environmental activism is to stop the ecological destruction of the planet, then the only actions for which personal and material resources should be used are those which effectively make progress towards that goal. Hunger strikes against global warming have not proved effective in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. Peaceful protests that have surrounded the White House in multiple human chains have not successfully halted the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Not only have these actions failed to stop the ecological destruction they are protesting, they have inflicted no political or economic damage on the proponents of these destructive processes. Without incentives for the cessation of the ecological terrorism they are committing, corporations will not stop.

Through the lens of efficacy, it is worth looking at the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND is a militant group in Nigeria that seeks autonomous control of Nigeria’s oil by the people of Nigeria, as well as reparations for the pollution resulting from industrial actions. In the fifty years following Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule, multiple Nigerian dictators established favorable relationships with major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell. In response to the actions of corporations and despotic governments, Nigerians began to engage in nonviolent protests. Many of these protesters were targeted by the government and physically intimidated, assaulted, or incarcerated. Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of the most famous nonviolent Ogoni activists, was hanged in 1995 on charges that were allegedly manufactured as a result of governmental ties with Shell. (Obi & Rustad, 2011)

In 2006, over a decade after Saro-Wiwa’s death, MEND began to engage in direct resistance to corporate-sanctioned terrorism. MEND continues to engage in militant resistance, including bombing oil pipelines, kidnapping soldiers tasked with guarding oil industry infrastructure, sabotaging refinement facilities, and, in 2010, announcing an “all-out onslaught against [oil industry] installations and personnel.” (Njanji, 2010, p.1) In tracing the progression of MEND, the increased use of militant tactics can be observed as a response to the necessity of efficacy. The widespread support MEND receives throughout Nigeria is evidence that their actions are the antithesis of terrorism. Without direct militant resistance to the ecological terrorism carried out by oil companies, the people of the Niger Delta would still be entirely at the mercy of those corporations. In this context, in 2009, Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million in an out of court settlement to the family members of some victims of brutality associated with oil extraction in Nigeria, but refused to stop drilling for and refining oil in Nigeria. (Obi & Rustad, 2011)


The Ecological Terrorism of the State

Historical actions of the FBI and major corporations involved in industrial activities—most notably, natural resource processing and energy production—illustrate a vast body of evidence for their engagement in ecological terrorism. It should be noted that for the FBI, ecoterrorism is but one facet of the terrorist activities the organization has been involved in. The FBI, as the main domestic law-enforcement branch of the U.S., represents the manifestation of corporate influence in the American State through its focus on terrorizing political and environmental activists. (Blackstock, 1976) Corporations, such as Royal Dutch Shell are not only engaged in directly terrorizing ecological systems, but are also intimately tied to the assassinations of environmental activists and the deregulation of the energy industry through political and economic pressure. (Obi & Rustad, 2011)

While the FBI is not engaged in the actual ecologically destructive processes of the non-doublespeak definition of ecoterrorism, its involvement in criminalizing and intimidating environmental activists plays a vitally important role in preventing the activist community from effectively protecting Earth’s ecosystems. The FBI has a history of engaging in domestic political assassinations as well as infiltration of political groups. For example, the FBI’s counter intelligence program, or COINTELPRO was an effort at surveillance, infiltration and the discrediting of American political groups using illegal or “extralegal” methods from 1956-1971. Prominent leaders of “dissident” and “subversive” political movements were considered important targets. In some cases, as with Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, the FBI arranged political assassinations with the help of local police departments. (Blackstock, 1976)

With this historical perspective, it is worth noting that activists such as Earth First! member Judi Bari have been the victims of myopic FBI investigations that seem focused solely on activists as a result of their political ideologies. When a pipe-bomb exploded in Bari’s car in 1990, despite the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ mandate to investigate crimes involving explosives, the FBI invoked “terrorism” to claim jurisdiction. The FBI immediately accused Bari and her passenger, Darryl Cherney, of possessing a bomb for use in terrorist action. As a result of evidence showing that the bomb had been placed under the front seat of the car and constructed in such a manner so as to detonate only upon the car being driven, the charges against Bari and Cherney were dropped. (Coleman, 2005)Evidence collected through deposition showed that the FBI’s bomb training programs utilized scenarios involving planting bombs in vehicles under conditions eerily similar Bari’s case, despite the Bureau’s statement that such targeted car-bombings were rare. Additional court documents showed that the FBI had ignored numerous reports of death threats against Bari that she had filed with them. In 2002, after five years of civil litigation, and Bari’s death, Cherney and Bari’s estate were awarded $4.4 million for civil rights violations at the hands of the FBI. (Coleman, 2005)


“Ecological Terrorism” as a Label to Delegitimize Effective Action

In the context of the global industrial paradigm, the state’s assertion that activists are engaging in ecological terrorism is entirely understandable, and evidences the disproportionate power held by the state. Not only does the state brand this phenomenon “ecological terrorism,” using a definition that is counter-intuitive to the meaning of the words contained therein, it also dictates the manner in which the ecoterrorism label acts socioculturally. Ecoterrorism suspects are neither treated as activists by the criminal justice system, nor by society at large, but are instead treated as terrorists. They are frequently subjected to solitary confinement, lack of visitation rights, and psychological abuses while in prison. At the same time, they are denounced and decried by groups such as the World Wildlife Fund. The corporate shareholders of the state who frequently, through the revolving door of industry and policy, influence policymaking in ways that are detrimental to the overall citizenry, have a vested interest in continuing to decimate ecological systems for profit. (McBay, et al., 2011) By labeling activists as ecoterrorists, the state is able to not only shift the conceptual framework of the discussion from the inherent destruction of industrial processes, but is also able to delegitimize the groups working to actively defend the environment from the destructive processes of the state and its shareholders.

If the premise that ecological activists are ecological terrorists is to be accepted, several questions must be asked:

1)      Who are they terrorizing;

2)      Why are they terrorizing them; and

3)      Do their actions fit the following non-doublespeak definition of ecological terrorism: i.e. “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion against the totality of relations between organisms and their environment?”

These questions are best answered by examining the direct action campaigns of an activist group that has been branded as engaged in ecoterrorism, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

The ELF has been active in the United States since 1992. However, prior to 1996, their actions were not widely publicized and therefore received little, if any, attention. The stated goal of the ELF is, “to inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment.”(Rosebraugh, 2004) At face value, this seems to indicate that the ELF is not engaged in the non-doublespeak definition of ecoterrorism, but is in fact, working to inhibit the ecoterrorism of industrial civilization.

At first glance, the ELF does fall into the category of the FBI’s definition of ecoterrorism. However, a critical review of the ELF’s efforts and the “who” they are terrorizing, as well as the “why,” indicates that the ELF, in actuality, does not fall into the non-doublespeak definition of ecoterrorism, “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion against the totality of relations between organisms and their environments.” Quite the contrary—the ELF is working to inhibit the destruction of the environment. If we use the FBI’s definition of ecoterrorism, we have a warped view of the nature of the true terrorist activity. The FBI definition presents the acts of resistance carried out by political groups, such as the ELF, as the “terror,” instead of acknowledging the industrial raping and pillaging of the natural environment that sustains all life on Earth as the true terror; without which there would be no impetus for ELF (or similar) actions. This semantic misdirection, on the part of the state and its shareholders, is nothing but misplaced wordplay and propaganda.

Past ELF actions include: causing over $12 million in property damages to the Vail Mountain ski resort in Vail, Colorado when its construction encroached into lynx habitat, endangering the well-being of the already threatened Canada Lynx; tree spiking campaigns to prevent logging on the East Coast and West Coast; arson campaigns against luxury condominiums in Long Island New York, in opposition to the decimation of the natural ecosystem for “future dens of the wealthy elite”; and the Street of Dreams arson fires in Echo Lake, Washington, in protest of the luxury home developers greenwashing the properties, among many others. (Rosebraugh, 2004) From this small sampling of actions, the “who” seems abundantly clear: the ELF is “terrorizing” developers and industrialists engaged in environmentally destructive actions.

In the ELF’s stated objective, the “why” is clearly articulated. The reason for the ELF’s actions is to protect the ecosystem. The destruction caused by industrial society is not only being neglected by the agencies that ostensibly exist to mitigate that damage, it is being furthered by the very structures that claim to operate in the name of public interests. (Rosebraugh, 2004)  In many cases, it is economically viable for corporations to flaunt ecological safety guidelines and pay the relatively minimal fines if they are caught doing so. For many, it is considered the cost of doing business, and comes down to simple economics. If it is cheaper to ignore the governmentally-sanctioned environmental protocols, and pay the resulting fines when malfeasance is recognized, than it is to engage in the sanctioned protocols, then the logic of capitalism dictates ignoring environmental protocols in favor of higher profits. (McBay, et al., 2011)

The ELF’s stated goal, and actions taken to further that goal, present important issues when unpacking and comparing the definition that dominant political narratives assign to “terrorists” of all stripes to the complex realities on the ground. Whether looking at the actions of Hamas in Occupied Palestine, the French Resistance in Occupied France, John Brown in the Antebellum South, the Irish Republican Army in Occupied Ireland, or any other group or individual engaged in terrorism or liberation struggles, depending which terminology is applied, it is clear that these actions do not occur in a vacuum. Actions labeled as “terrorism” by dominant bodies of power occur in response to atrocities such as occupation, slavery, and oppression. While it conflicts with the dominant narrative, put simply—the inherent destruction of ecological systems by industrial civilization and the resulting trauma it causes to humans, other animals, and the planet as a whole necessitates resistance.



The doublespeak definition of ecoterrorism then, serves to reinforce the state’s monopoly on legitimate force. By misappropriating the word “ecological” and using it as a modifier to “terrorism,” not to mean “atrocities carried out against nature,” but to mean “actions carried out in defense of nature,” the state is able to justify the use of surveillance, infiltration, and force against environmental activists, while depriving the public lexicon of an accurate descriptor of industrial actions. This serves the state and its shareholders by both obfuscating the nature of the actions in which they are engaged, and creating a spectacle on which the sensationalizing focus of the corporate news media—also state shareholders—can be turned. By solidifying its monopoly on legitimate force, the state is able to further its agenda through both the outright elimination of “radical elements” such as ecological activists engaged in direct action, as well as the criminalization of dissent. A major series of incidents in this vein can be traced clearly to Operation Backfire and the subsequent “Green Scare” that greatly impacted not only the radical activist community, but the environmental movement as a whole. (McBay, et al., 2011)

Ultimately, from the perspective of the state and its shareholders, environmental activists engaged in direct action present a very real threat to their power. Not only do these activists seek to end the environmentally destructive processes which generate economic wealth and social power, they seek to end the paradigm that allows for such processes to be accepted by society at large. This is the definition of an existential crisis for the industrial elite—without industry they cease to be elite. Through a combination of environmental deregulation, campaign finance deregulation, and revolving door relationships between industry and government, corporations that rely on industrial practices have been able to secure their interests through a variety of governmental channels. Having access to the accepted legitimacy of state institutions allows corporations to utilize the power of these institutions to criminalize actions and ideologies that are at odds with their own objectives.

There is no question that industrial activities have a negative impact on ecosystems and the environment. Climate change is a globally accepted phenomenon in the scientific community. The fact that there is still political debate in the U.S. as to the “legitimacy” of climate change is evidence of the degree to which corporate interests control U.S. government, and the policy and public narratives it creates. It is also further evidence of the degree to which power allows for the defining of phenomena and of the fact that powerful industrial interests will define and redefine phenomena as best suits their desires, regardless of the negative impacts it has on ecosystems and the life that depends on them. If the politicized term “ecoterrorism” is deconstructed, analyzed, and reconstructed according to its logical definition: i.e. “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion against the totality of relations between organisms and their environments,” it is readily apparent that it is not environmental activists who engage in ecoterrorism, but the state and its industrial shareholders.



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