In 1975, Edward Abbey, a storied character who worked as a park ranger in Moab, Utah, released a book, called The Monkey Wrench Gang. With its eccentric cast of characters, ranging from a “Jack Mormon”, to a green beret, the book captured America's mind with its ecological message. The gang, in the book, takes action to protect the American west from environmental degradation. However, rather than going by the route of the Sierra Club, or other non violent activities, the gang, called the Monkeywrench gang, uses sabotage.
This was amongst the first things that brought the specter of environmental terrorism, or ecoterrorism into the public's mind. Soon after, in 1982, Chaim Nissim, a Swiss environmental activist with links to the infamous Carlos the Jackal, used multiple RPG's on a French nuclear reactor.1 In addition to this Earth Liberation Front (ELF), Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth First! And the Sea Shepherds, soon became active in their activities. This led to something called the green scare, akin to the red scare of the McCarthy era, but against environmental activists.
In spite of the voluminous press coverage on the topic, ecoterrorism, environmental terrorism and ecotage are all terms with a very neboulous nature, and a very doubious ethical underpinnings. So much so that when doing research for this paper, I did a search on JSTOR, which is normally suffused with papers from verbose academicians, however for a search string “ecoterrorism ethics” I got no relevant papers, and for “ecoterrorism”, I got two or three links. This is sufficient illustration on the dearth of material on this subject. Therefore, In this paper, I shall attempt to find concrete definitions for the terms ecoterrorism, environmental terrorism, and ecotage. I shall also attempt to find ethical underpinnings for such acts.. To do so, I shall primarily draw on newspaper reports on various occurrences, texts on the theory of terror, and the textbook provided to us.
The first major issue that strikes us is the fact that there is no major definition to terrorism. There are many different interpretations of terrorism, however they are all radically different. For the purposes we can define terrorism as the use of force, actual or implied; to force, coerce, or generally to cause a person, party, or organisation to make decisions that are contrary to their interests or to stop the progress in some process that is contrary to the ideas, beliefs, or wants of the person committing the acts of “terror”. I do realise that by this definition, many cases of commonly accepted “terrorism” would not be terror by this definition, eg. September 11 attacks etc. However for most purposes, this definition should suffice.
We can further divide terror into two categories: Domestic, and International (Refer to Addendum 1). Domestic terror is terror committed by nationals of a nation inside their very nation, where as international terror is committed by nationals of a nation outside the boundaries of their nation.
Examples of domestic terror could be the Una Bomber2, whereas international terrorism could be the activities of Al Queda over the decade of 1991 to 2001. Furthermore, we can divide terror into various types, ranging from: Civil Disorder, which are activities to hinder the work of the government, whether violent or nonviolent, eg. Gandhi's Frequent Fasts, and Civil Disobedience movements, Political Terrorism, in which terror is used for political ends, eg. The Basque ETA, Non Political Terrorism, in which eco-terrorism falls, eg. Una Bomber, or Chaim Nissim, who was mentioned earlier. A special category could be state sponsored terrorism, eg Saddam Hussain's scorched earth policy in Kuwait, or US sponsored Mujahiddeen in the Soviet-Afghan war.
Keeping in mind that this is a paper related to environmental acts, I shall refrain henceforth from concerning myself with strictly political acts. Keeping in with the spirit of this exercise, I shall now refer to the work of Daniel Schwartz who in his paper Environmental Terrorism: Analyzing the Concept lays out a “taxonomy” of environmental destruction. These eight types mentioned in his taxonomy can be used as a broad structure around which we can base our types of environmental acts. We need to keep in mind though, that Schwartz looks at environmental terrorism is terror towards the environment. However, I shall put his taxonomy for use in gauging the various categories of eco-terrorism.
Taxonomy of Environmental Destruction3
|Category #||Intent||Peacetime or Wartime||Symbolism|
This table is very self evident, except for the concept of symbolism. Terrorism breeds on symbolism, which each act generating fear in the masses, and as such each act is a symbol. Schwartz divides the different symbols in terms of their action on the environment, with non symbolic, being literal damage, and lessening to a degree to primary symbolism. His concept of peacetime to wartime does not really apply.
Thus with the paradigm given by Schwartz, we can fit in eco-terrorist activities into various categories. A category 1 act would be something to the order of vandalising the offices of a corporation that uses animals for testing, because the corporation in this case is a victim, rather than a causality. Category 2, by Schwartz's own admission has no existing examples. Category 3 would be uprooting and destroying GM crops planted for testing purposes by a corporation.4 Category 4 would be akin to Saddam Hussain's scorched earth policy in Kuwait.56 Category 5 would be directly sabotaging the activities of groups going against the environment, like tree spiking7 (coincidently, after the proliferation of tree spiking by the ELF, it was declared a felony.), or peacetime Nuclear warhead tests. Category 6 would be an extension of category 4, but to a greater degree, like usage of Agent Orange by America in Viet Nam (Many contemprory scholars refer to such actions as ecocide8). Category 7 could be like the BP oil spill, or the Exxon Valdez incident. Category 8 could be classified a s collateral damage.
For all practical purposes, we can disregard categories 2,7, and 8. This is because category 2 is extremely improbable, and categories 7 and 8 are without intent, and thus, for all practical proposes are accidents rather than acts with intent (something that is more often than not needed to prove culpability in the court of law.) Furthermore, we can reduce categories 1-4 to the blanket term of ecotage, or monkey wrenching (depending on the readers literary taste). This is so because the acts are acts, whether of violence, or nonviolence, that are meant to impede the actions of a person, group, or a organisation indirectly. However, Categories 5 and 6 are acts of eco-terrorism, because they directly strike at the root of the issue.
Thus far, we have arrived at a definition of terrorism, and have divided ecoterrorism into two grand categories of ecotage, and ecoterrorism. Most activists/ ecoterrorists, by these definition commit only ecotage, and not ecoterrorism, because most of their ethical underpinnings are in ecocentricism.
Ecocentricism is a standpoint in environmental ethics that states that the ecosphere is of a bigger importance than our anthropocentric ideas of human superiority. Humanity is inconsequential in front of the ecosphere, which is more complex, inclusive, and older. What humanity perceives of as the environment from its anthropocentric standpoint is a tool for human development. That is a misconception. The ecosphere is actually the matrix that supports us and we are at its mercy. However, the philosophy still considers human rights important. The roots of ecocentricism could arguably be found in the works of Singer, who stated that all organisms are equal. By that standpoint, causing direct harm to a human, for an ecocentrist would be abhorrent.
Keeping in mind that Peter Singer was amongst the progenitors of the ecocentist movement, we can look more at his works to get a deeper understanding of the ethical underpinnings of ecoterrorism. He, in his text Animal Liberation, refers to Sedgewick, who said “The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view of the universe, than the good of any other”9. Singer argues that this argument is made against racism, so why not extend it against specism. He says that specism is an analogue of racism, but in which the idea of race as a discriminatory tool is replaced by species. He then argues that we need an ethical system that puts equal value on life, rather a sliding scale based on a anthropocentric doctrine.
To look at ecoterrorism from an ethical standpoint, let us conduct a thought experiment. Say there is a factory that produces a perishable good that could possibly save the life of one terminally ill cancer patient. There is a 50 % chance that the treatment would work. The catch, though is that to make one unit of the treatment, an animal would need to be killed. The question is would you, if you were of the ecotageist persuasion, take action on that factory, and cause certain economic and emotional harm to the owners, and their relatives?
If we were to invoke Singer, he would put his faith on a neutral, impartial, rational self, who could make the decision for him. Let us, in a moment of pretension, claim to be such “selves”. We have in front of us the choice between a 50% probability of saving a human life, or saving an animal. The externalities for the first action would be a dead animal, but a 50% possibility of a alive human, and the externality for the second action would be a dead human, and a definitely alive animal, plus emotional and financial damage to the factory owners.
Now from the ELF, ALF and other ecotage based organisations would take the second course of action, based on the principle that an animal is equal to a human so the second action would hedge their bets, so as to speak. The emotional and financial damage would amount to retribution for the prior animals killed. Somewhat akin to the idea of blood money in Arab nations.
A traditional philosopher rooted in deontology, also armed with an anthropocentric (or speciest) philosophy would take the first course, because yes, the animal would get killed, but the 50 % chance of a human surviving would be too much of an incentive. If you include the categorical imperative, and its intrinsic reductio ab absurdum, this action would take place even more so, because if the entire world had cancer, and the 50% chance of living, we would kill off (as of now) 7 Billion animals, but we would have 3.5 Billion humans still alive. A utilitarian would tend to agree with this scenario.
To make a reasoned decision in this case, any person would need to first imagine the rights and the hierarchy they ascribe to the human, animal, plant paradigm. If we could assume a hierarchy: Plant- Animal- Human, with the humans on the top, then the first course of action would be the only option, whereas if we considered no hierarchy, we would have to take the second option. Herein lies a rub. Ecotage and ecoterrorism is analogous to the Anti-Racist Action group10, as in, it is violent action, or actions with the threat of violence against oppressors, which would be people exploiting and damaging the environment. In a manner, an ecotageist or a ecoterrorist is akin to a member of a revolutionary organisation, like the IRA, the ETA, or, in some ways, the Minutemen or the Posse Comitatus.
We can not go and say that ecotage and ecoterrorism is bad, because we are not in the ethical agreement. In a manner, it is like a conversation between a Russian and a English speaker. They might be making the most cogent of arguments, however since their initial points of reference, language, are different, nothing fruitful can come out. Until a widely accepted common standard is established, with reduced divergence of views, we can not criticise ecoterrorists, because from their moral standpoint, they are doing what is morally and ethically, the right thing to do. I agree that this argument could be extended to the Nazi's too, and again, herein lies the rub. I think that it is not in my place to criticise someone, just because they think differently. In a manner, it would be like criticising someone for their sartorial choices. Ideas, and beliefs are to be respected for what they are, they can be challenged, but not exterminated. An old Indian adage comes to my mind “if you don't like the food in my village, go start your own.”
To shortly sum up my position: before we come to the hasty decision of criticising the ecoterrorists, we need to understand that they do come from a legitimate ethical standpoint. As such, they are a revolutionary faction akin to people like Gandhi (with his frequent fasts until death). Until a solid base is built for both parties to stand on common ground, all our acts of capturing and prosecuting ecoterrorists would be akin to discriminatory practices based on race or gender. It is interesting to note that amongst FBI's 7 wanted domestic terrorists, there are two communists, three ALF members, and a Black Panther. All these people have been on the run since the 70's and the 80's and are still at large. We need to recognise that ideas hold power over us and beliefs even more so.
In conclusion, I looked at developing a definition of terrorism, which i put to use on ecological terror. Furthermore I subdivided ecological terror into two subcategories, ecotage (sabotage with an intent to change the environment's current state) and ecoterrorism (terrorism with an intent to change the environment's current state). Furthermore I looked at the ethical basis of ecoterrorism, using a thought experiment to simplify comprehension. As a postscript of sorts, the prototypical ecoterrorists, the original monkeywrench gang, were nothing like the stereotypical environmentalists today. They consumed copious amounts of red meat, littered with beer cans, drove big fast cars, dismissed liberalism, and didn't really care for the sierra club. The irony.
- Chaim Nissim's Blog (French) <http://nissim.blog.tdg.ch/about.html>
- Interview With Ted Kacyznsky <http://web.archive.org/web/20090318135703/http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/tedk.htm>
- Schwartz, Daniel M., Environmental Terrorism: Analysing the Concept.;Journal Of Peace Research, Vol 35. No 4 pp 483-496 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/425754>
- GE - Wild Greens Attack GE Potatoes <http://www.gene.ch/info4action/1999/Mar/msg00061.hhtml>
- Tree Spiking Suspect linked to the ELF<http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=94275&page=1>
- Singer,Peter. All Animals Are Equal. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology 4th Ed.
- "13 Beagles Stolen From Researchers". <http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/02/science/13-beagles-stolen-from-researchers.html?pagewanted=1.>
- Defination of Environmental Terrorism <http://law.jrank.org/pages/11976/Terrorism-Environmental-terrorism.html>
1Chaim Nissim's Blog (French)
2Una-bomber's manifesto, a rambling 50 plus page manifesto titled Industrial society and its future actually could be argued to be a seminal argument for enviro-primitivism. Indeed, his actions could be said to be distinctly Monkey Wrench-ish, as seen from his interview in Earth First! Journal: The best place, to me, was the largest remnant of this plateau that dates from the tertiary age. It's kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply in to cliff-like drop-offs and there was even a waterfall there. It was about a two days hike from my cabin. That was the best spot until the summer of 1983. That summer there were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace. I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it... You just can't imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge.
3Schwartz, Daniel M., Environmental Terrorism: Analysing the Concept.;Journal Of Peace Research, Vol 35. No 4 pp 483-496
CAMPAIGNERS DECONTAMINATE GE CROP IN NEW ZEALAND AS UK ACTIVISTS PREPARE TO PUT GENETIC ENGINEERING ON TRIAL The Genetic Engineering Network has today received news that a group calling themselves “Wild Greens” has uprooted a field trial of GE potatoes in Canterbury, New Zealand. The trial was part of a 10-year experimental programme to assess the safety of GE potatoes for commercial use and was destroyed during the night of Wednesday 10th March. The decontamination has set the programme back by at least 12 months. The potatoes concerned were genetically engineered to contain the genes of the African clawed toad, designed to give resistance to soft rot bacteria. The “Wild Greens” fear the development of antibiotic resistance in animals and humans, if such crops are commercialised. Engineering animal genes in to a vegetable also raises fundamental ethical questions.
GE - Wild Greens Attack GE Potatoes
5An Important point needs to be made that Eco-Terrorism not only includes terrorism for the environment, but also against the environment. Thus, We would actually club the monkeywrencher's and BP, with their oil spills (disregarding intent) in the same category of eco terrorists. This could, arguably, antagonise many a environmental terrorist/ activist, however to create a semblance of coherence in my argument, this is a necessary evil.
6On a additional side note, Carl Von Clausewitz, in his seminal text, On War, stated that war should not be started for war's sake, but should be an extension of politics. In addition, he stated that there are two kinds of wars, limited, and total. The aim of a total war is to “disarm” the enemy, and make him impotent. As such, Saddam Hussain's actions in the Gulf War were, in some ways, reasonable tactics. The blowing up of oil wells not only resulted in a massive diversion of resources to control the fires, but also lead to massive smoke clouds, that made maneuvers and visibility difficult. Similar things could be said of America's usage of Agent Orange in Viet Nam, and of Hitler's tactics after the Stalingrad retreat. It could therefore be suggested, that in some ways, Hussain, Hitler, and the Pentagon were ethically in the right for their “eco-terror”, because it catered to their best interests and was, at least in their world view, for the greater good.
7Tree Spiking Suspect linked to the ELF
8Schwartz, Daniel M., Environmental Terrorism: Analysing the Concept.;Journal Of Peace Research, Vol 35. No 4 pp 492
9Singer,Peter. All Animals Are Equal. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology 4th Ed. PP 29