In April 2012, activists in Italy entered a Green Hill dog breeding facility and removed 40 beagles from the premises, handing them over the fence to other activists, who took them away in waiting cars. The beagles were bred to be sold to laboratories where they would be used for testing.
These activists, and others, are a part of what has been termed the Green Scare, a phrase referring to the growing prominence of radical environmental activism. The Green Scare deems acts of radical environmentalism “eco-terrorism” and is a reflection of increased political and legal attention to these groups.
Jeff Luers writes in A Brief Description of Environmental Activism about his perception that environmental activists are, “motivated (in part) by a sense of deep ecology. The belief that all life is interconnected from planet to animal to forest to ocean to the world at large.”
What makes an environmentalist group radical are the actions taken in order to fulfill their mandate. These groups may engage in sabotage, arson or destruction of private property, all in the name of their cause.
Recently, well-known environmental activist Paul Watson, founder and captain of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was arrested by German authorities at the request of Costa Rica for violent confrontations with shark hunters off the coast of Guatemala dating back to 2002. Watson has since skipped on his bail and is now in hiding.
Watson’s arrest reflects a growing global trend of crackdowns on radical activist groups, which includes new legislation, tougher rhetoric and stiff penalties.
Origins and focus of radical activism
Radical environmentalism is an ideology that is based upon ecocentrism, which is the belief system that holds nature as paramount, above humans. It became prominent in the 1970s with groups like Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) taking unprecedented measures in the name of environmentalism. Greenpeace was responsible for ramming a number of whaling ships, while the Environmental Life Force relied upon explosives and incendiary devices as a form of protest against various government and corporate policies. Other groups nailed metal into trees to prevent them from being felled, and sabotaged heavy machinery.
The prevalence of these radical environmental groups grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s to see the formation of such groups as Earth First!, Earth Liberation Army, Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The ALF fights for animal rights and is against the use of animals in scientific experiments, including vivisection (a practice that persists today at many of the world’s top universities) and testing, while PETA attempts to raise awareness about the conditions faced by animals in different animal enterprises. Many of these groups now have members numbering in the thousands and regularly receive donations numbering in the millions.
The most radical environmental activist groups, such as the ALF, ELF and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, generally operate under a leaderless resistance model and have no official membership. This makes it difficult for authorities to specifically target the groups and has, in some instances, resulted in the implementation of far-reaching laws.
Additionally, some groups, including PETA and Greenpeace, regularly engage in non-violent forms of activism including lobbying, awareness campaigns and protesting, and have provided a key forum for the discussion of important environmental issues.
Legal barriers and government crackdowns
In response to the actions of these radicalized groups, many countries have enacted new legislation to combat what are known as direct-action tactics.
In 2006, the United States Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in order to protect those involved with animal enterprise against raids conducted by activist groups. The Act stipulates that it is illegal to take any action that, “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise.” The maximum penalty under the Act is a prison sentence of up to no more than 20 years and a fine.
In 2005, CNN reported that the FBI regarded “eco-terrorism” or “ecotage” as the number one domestic terrorism threat in the United States, far greater than right-wing extremist groups.
In China, many environmental activists are detained or disappear when certain environmental issues are receiving a lot of attention by civil society groups. A recent such example occurred in June 2012, when thousands of protestors in Shifang County clashed violently with police in a protest over a proposed heavy metal refinery in their town. The government vowed swift punishment for those who participated.
A report published by Global Witness, an NGO that works toward identifying the links between resource exploitation and human rights abuses, found that environmental activists have been killed at the rate of more than one per week over the last decade. The rate of these deaths is increasing, with the highest number occurring in 2011. The report also states that nearly half of the decade’s recorded deaths occurred in Brazil, where the conservation of the country’s rainforests and rivers is a priority for environmental activists. Other countries that were named in the report as having some of the highest numbers of killings include Peru, Columbia and The Philippines.
In 2001, the afore quoted Jeff Luers was charged with the burning of three SUVs in Eugene, Oregon as part of a protest about global warming and the contributing role played by SUVs. No one was injured during the protest. Luers was later convicted and given a 22 year and 8 month sentence, a prison term that is more than what some convicted murderers and rapists serve in the state of Oregon.
The arrest of Paul Watson also demonstrates that countries are willing to work together to stop radical environmentalists. While Watson was initially arrested in connection with clashes between the Sea Shepherd and shark hunters in Cost Rica, the Japanese embassy in Ottawa confirmed that Japan requested his extradition on July 19 in connection to an illegal boarding of a Japanese whaling vessel.
In a statement published on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s website after he fled Germany Watson said, “For me it is obvious that the German government conspired with Japan and Costa Rica to detain me so that I could be handed over to the Japanese. For me it is clear that they made the political decision to turn me over to the Japanese even before a court decision was made.”
Contrasting approaches to environmentalism
There are hundreds of non-radical environmental groups that engage the public in campaigns of awareness. The Sierra Club is working to block coal burning power plants and the World Wild Life fund is encouraging countries to invest in ecotourism to help raise awareness for certain environmental issues and generate income for local populations.
In contrast, in May of 2012, Greenpeace, Katuah Earth First! and a number of other activist groups blocked a train shipment of coal headed to a Duke Energy coal-burning power plant in North Carolina. They locked themselves to the tracks to prevent the train from passing and painted the cars with the Apple emblem, as some Apple products rely on coal-fired power plants.
In 2011, AlterNet published a story about a book written by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Aric McBay called Deep Green Resistance. In it, they advocate for a militant approach to environmental crisis, claiming that at present, we likely don’t have enough people interested in saving the planet and that ultimately time will run out on us. The article identifies that Jensen, Keith and McBay claim that we can no longer afford to be “grieved by polluted rivers or angered by short-sighted politicians” and that we can no longer make basic lifestyle changes such as, “bik[ing] more or eat[ing] local.”
The book raises critical points about the current state of environmentalism and where its weaknesses lie. Basic efforts will likely not be enough to reverse the effects of climate change, nor account for the negative effects of a growing global population and increased industrialization. In this light, the efforts of radical environmentalist groups appear desperate attempts to enact positive environmental change in the world.
Is it truly “terrorism”?
It is important to note that unlike political terrorists, animal rights and environmental activists have not intentionally tried to harm or kill anyone. The awareness website Green Is The New Red rightly points out that activists have not flown planes into buildings or sent anthrax in the mail. There is only one attempted murder case in the history of animal rights activism in the United States and it is believed by many to have been orchestrated by the U.S. government.
Yet with commercial players often the target of environmentalist grievances, labelling these groups as “eco-terrorists” goes some way in delegitimizing them so that business interests are protected. This then begs the question of whether or not the hysteria surrounding the Green Scare is entirely valid, particularly as punishment for “eco-terrorism” tends to be disproportionate to the crime.