Eco-terrorism can be understood in two ways: firstly, as violence carried out for environmental ends, and secondly, as the action of causing environmental damage for political ends. The more commonly used and accepted meaning of eco-terrorism is the first one- violence aimed at achieving environmental goals. The origin of eco-terrorism can be traced back to the three waves of environmentalism, through which environmentalism and ecology as we know today have evolved.
First Wave environmentalism began as early as the era of Romantic poets, who wrote about protecting the beauty of nature, and included even the colonists, who went so far as to realize the importance of local species in their colonies and created wildlife parks, and placed regulations on hunting. Second Wave environmentalism, which was at its peak from the 1960’s to the 1980’s had more to do with morals- with the basic belief that everything is connected and by hurting the earth we end up hurting ourselves. Third Wave environmentalism, much like all other ideas that developed as its contemporaries, was based a lot on the new, globalized economy.
It during the Second Wave of environmentalism that eco-terrorism as an idea, and acts of eco-terrorism sprang about. Environmental groups and lobbies have gained a lot of traction through their protests and peaceful methods, so much so that as of today, most countries, governments and political parties include ‘the green agenda’ in their rosters. But the more extreme and radical counterparts of these groups and lobbies have also been active since the 1980’s.
Sometimes called REAR (Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights) groups, these groups are listed active in more than 25 countries, and have been estimated to have committed more than 1,000 criminal acts between 1970 and 2007 in the United States alone. At one point, America’s FBI called eco-terrorist groups “the number one domestic” threat.
What exactly is their modus operandi? Eco-terrorist groups, armed with the belief that peaceful methods have achieved nothing, resort to means like vandalism, pipe bombs at institutional sites, destructions of research data, invasion of government offices as well business ones, arson, and so on. They mainly target governments ventures or private corporations working on hydro-electric projects, the recreational use of forests and wildlife, animal research, agricultural experimentation and so on- whatever they believe are hurting the earth.
One of the first eco-terrorist organizations was the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, which had broken off from Greenpeace (Greenpeace itself being strongly against such violent means). This group was identified to have rammed into and sunk several whaling ships and blockaded the Canadian sealing fleet. Another prominent group was Earth First!, which was the precursor the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an organization started in Brighton, UK, which then expanded to the rest of Europe, then America, and the rest of the worlds. ELF is probably the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of eco-terrorist groups, and the most prominent name that shows up in internet searches as well.
ELF, whose member called themselves the Elves, promotes “front line direct action” to protect the environment. They used economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to further their ends. Some of their notable actions include the burning of a Ranger Station in Oakridge (Oregon), the burning of a ski resort in Colorado which is estimated to have caused $12 million in damages, sabotaging power lines, and the use of a gasoline bomb in Michigan State University, burning of labs and offices in the University of Washington, and the list goes on.
However, since 2009, eco-terrorism seems to have died down, or at least quietened for the time being. This has raised many important questions, the most obvious one being, why? Scholars have speculated that eco-terrorist groups had a few core members responsible for their actions, and most of them have been arrested, causing the movement to die out. Several Elves have been recorded to have active ELF cells in jail.
Another reason put forward by some scholars is that eco-terrorist groups, which operated in North America and Europe have been suppressed by the general anti-terrorism and security laws and measures in these countries, the decline of Eco-terrorism coinciding with legislations like the PATRIOT Act, and harder sentences which were given out to those who were caught. In recent times, the number of eco-terrorist attacks have come down so much that it has even made people whether terming this radical environmentalism “terrorism” is not going overboard. Whatever be the case, Eco-terrorism seems have to disappeared, with environmentalism becoming more and more mainstream.
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