Eco-terrorism and the Earth Liberation Front

The documentary “If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front” by Marshall Curry was released earlier this year. The film presents the story of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an eco-defense group that has utilized arson, violence, and extensive property damage (all deemed “eco-tage”) to destroy businesses they believed were destroying the environment in some way. The ELF has been categorized as an “eco-terrorist” group, and has been classified as the number one domestic U.S. terrorist threat in the past.

Radical environmentalism in general is a very controversial topic. The ELF claimed the necessity to resort to “criminal” direct action because picketing, protesting, and letter-writing were accomplishing nothing: successes took too long to come to fruition, and meanwhile the earth was being destroyed at an increasingly rapid pace. The beliefs of the ELF always mandated that no humans were ever hurt or killed in any of the actions, although some critics see significant property destruction as being nearly as condemnable.

Some of the major actions taken by the ELF within the past two decades include the destruction of timber companies’ headquarters, wild horse slaughterhouses, SUV dealerships, ranger stations, GMO-engineering plants, multi-million-dollar mansions, radio towers, and perhaps most infamously, a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, CO. The film discusses how much of the ELF action since the 1990’s was perpetuated by the force and violence police and federal officials were using against non-violent environmental protestors. ELF members who were interviewed in the film expressed the view that their arson attacks were able to put an immediate and often definitive end to corrupt and unsustainable corporations, and in that sense, they were successful.

Another cited reason behind the ELF’s “radical” actions involved media coverage: when a major business was burned down, it automatically drew attention to the issue, thereby gaining exposure for the environmental issue behind the attack. However, supporters of non-violent environmental protest have expressed the view that there are more peaceful and less harmful methods of raising awareness about environmental problems than arson and criminal property damage. I felt that the documentary “If a Tree Falls” did a good job of presenting all perspectives surrounding the issue of the ELF and radical environmentalism/eco-terrorism in general. Past and present ELF members, protestors, environmentalists, citizens, victims of the arson, prosecutors, and detectives are all interviewed and featured in-depth.

I wanted to provide an initial background on the ELF, because it is the most prominent radical environmental group to date, and therefore I will continue to refer to it as my blog progresses. There is a ton of information out there about the ELF, presented in a wide variety of ways, so I encourage you to do some research on your own if this topic interests you, because it would be impossible for me to cover every aspect of this group in my blog posts. After researching the Earth Liberation Front, and watching excerpts of “If a Tree Falls,” there are numerous questions that I’ve been thinking a lot about:

Is violent activism ever acceptable? In what cases is violent activism more effective than nonviolent activism? What is the extent of actions that can be justified in the name of environmentalism? Why does peaceful protest so frequently seem ineffective or fails to create any significant change? How do we go about creating significant change in a nonviolent manner? Because the environmental movement is so closely tied to the passing of time, (the survival of our Earth seems more and more like a ticking time bomb) how long should we be willing to wait before we are absolutely justified in taking drastic, large-scale, and potentially violent action in the name of our planet?

I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this matter!


Re: Eco-terrorism and the Earth Liberation Front

Gandhi won great successes with nonviolence and has become the case-in-point argument for his followers. The problem is that the global elite read Gandhi too.

It's hard to rely on the methods of colonial protest because we no longer live in a colonial world. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan troops aren't fighting a clear enemy. In the streets we aren't protesting foreign occupation; we are fighting a structural subconscious and ideological understatement.

As children we learned about states, countries, borders and capitals. But did we learn about political-economy? It seems our society has been ill-prepared for the struggles we face today. Due to the extent of wage labor in the U.S., in a sense we are fighting ourselves.

We are fighting global strategists who read Gandhi, who know the power of peace, and who have little historical precedent for avoiding methods of violence, which have only improved since Gandhi's day. Kettling has only been around since the 1980's, according to a quick Google search. Other relatively recent developments include tear gas, rubber bullets, tazers and sound guns. Gandhi was a game-changer of yore and protestors would be wise to strategize in the present.

If the Occupy Wall Street protests are worth anything, it's that they are mainstreaming protest to the economic realities of our world instead of the political puppets. OWS shows that we are no longer willing to let behind-the-scenes structures overpower the people's overt and constitutional rights to a political voice.

So far violence has not been a major factor in the OWS protest because OWS has been a game-changer in its own right. But what's next? Who can say the global elite won't employ violence?

I would like to conclude by arguing that polite, professional protests can achieve very little in the face of a systemic crisis. Change is the result of a system severely disrupted by creative and obstinate protests. But where is the line drawn on violence?

Vi o lence /ˈvī(ə)ləns/

Noun: 1. Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.

By this definition, the ELF is a violent group because they have used physical means to damage something in the name of environmentalism. The problem is that burning down a building, in their ethical rationale, is a courageous act. So isn't their act deplorable only by the mainstream logic of depriving someone of a job and thus a livelihood? The Yes Men are nonviolent, but the same argument could be made. Perhaps this is just another example of false consciousness in the English language.

Violence is easy. Conformity is easy. Let those be the tactics of the thugs of the elite. Protest should be an act of transcendence beyond the individual.

Re: Eco-terrorism and the Earth Liberation Front

You bring up a lot of interesting points, Steve. The connections you made between the ELF's actions and those of other groups, leaders, and movements shed light on many of the similarities they share. It's clear that the line between the justification of violent and nonviolent actions within movements of many kinds is becoming less and less defined, which could have some very serious implications for the future. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!