Militant environmentalism

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For all their differences the community-based and professional environmentalists are mainly interested in changing policies and affecting political decisions; however, there are a large number of environmentalists whose main concerns are moral or spiritual. But, as with political environmentalists, the moralists also are highly varied and contradictory in their aims. My distinction between the militant and the personal is intended to convey the fact that there is a fundamental difference between those who practice their environmental morality in public and those who practice it more privately. In the first category, which I call "militant environmentalism," we have the groups that have broken away, usually for ideological reasons, from the mainstream organizations - the so-called splinter groups - as well as the ever more militant groups that have sprung up in recent years in many parts of the world to liberate animals, reclaim the streets, and generally to disrupt the normal operations of social and economic activity (Taylor 1995).

Friends of the Earth can be considered to be the first splinter organization. David Brower, director of the Sierra Club for many years, in the late 1960s found himself in conflict with his board of directors over the strategy and orientation of the organization. By 1970 he felt that his view of environmental politics had become more environmental, more radical, than many of the other members of his organization. In many ways, this was a typical pattern of development in the environmental movement as it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, as "new-fangled" environmentalists found themselves uncomfortable and unsatisfied with the priorities and political directions of the established organizations to which many of them belonged. Some of those new-fangled environmentalists have since joined the "mainstream" and become leaders of newly established professional organizations in their own right. In many countries, for example, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace practice many of the same things as the older organizations - lobbying, consulting, etc. - and have become largely indistinguishable from the mainstream. Nonetheless there remains a difference in relation to both direct action and militance. Organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth provide latent support for militant environmentalists that older organizations seldom do.

In the 1980s and 1990s splinter organizations emerged, such as Earth First! and the Sea Shepherds. These organizations have brought new issues on to the agenda, as well as developing new methods of protest. Many of these more recent organizations have been inspired by the so-called deep ecology, and have also been influenced by anarchist, syndicalist, and even terrorist political and ideological traditions. On a cosmological level militant environmentalists share a belief in what might be termed "species equality," a form of biocentrism or ecocentrism that places human beings on an equal footing with other life forms (for critical discussion, see e.g. Ferry 1995; Taylor 1995; Harvey 1996).

Carolyn Merchant has given this framework the name "partnership ethics" in order to accentuate the dimension of sharing - of resources, space, nature - that is central to many militant environmentalists (Merchant 1999). The idea of partnership, for Merchant and many other radical ecologists, is related to the "gender equality" that has been propounded by feminists, and there is, in much militant environmentalism, a strong influence from "ecofeminist" thinkers such as Merchant and Vandana Shiva (see Eckersley 1992; Dowie 1996). As Merchant puts it, "A new cultural politics and a new environmental ethic arising out of women's experiences and needs can provide an ethic of sustainability. Many of the goals and gains of feminists are central to that new discourse and ethic. Women's interests and nature's interests intertwine. The goal is a sustainable partnership with the natural world" (Merchant 1999: 205).

We should recognize, however, that there are widely divergent meanings of both deep ecology and partnership ethics, most especially perhaps in terms of the role they play in the identity of the activists. A useful rule of thumb is whether the ideas of deep ecology or animal liberation or partnership ethics serve as an ideology or as a utopia, in the sense that Karl Mannheim once defined those terms (Mannheim 1936). An ideology relates to a pre-conceived framework of belief, while a utopia describes not-yet-existing relations and orients behavior to exemplifying the utopian vision. The ideological "use" of deep ecology is thus a translation of the idea of species equality to a principle of action, while the utopian use is a translation of much the same idea to a criterion of living experimentation. Where the one tends to "reduce" the ideas to a code of conduct, the other opens the ideas to innovative application.

"Deep ecology" as a label for the more spiritually minded, and often violently driven, environmental activists who occupy building sites and prevent forests from being cut, is, in any case, something quite different from deep ecology as it was first discussed by Arne N^ss, the Norwegian philosopher, who coined the term. For N^ss, deep ecology was to be distinguished from the shallow, from the mundane, political struggle, and it was not so much proposed as an alternative to traditional environmental politics as a necessary complement. But for N^ss, it was also a philosophy, a kind of belief system, inspired by respect and humility for non-human nature, that was strongly influenced by Indian philosophy and, particularly, by the teachings of Gandhi (Rothenberg 1995). So it may be seen as unfortunate that deep ecology has been associated with violent environmental protests since, for N^ss, the essence of environmentalism is non-violence and a kind of dialogic compassion for the other, for the "enemy." According to David Rothenberg, the environmental philosopher who has translated N^ss into English:

Before turning to ecological matters, Nsss worked for many years to demonstrate that Gandhi's collection of aphorisms, life experiences, protests and mediations constituted a coherent philosophy, not a bag of contradictory assertions and behaviors. Self-realization according to Gandhi is the root of Nsss's entire philosophy of deep ecology... The power of nonviolence is built upon belief in the essential oneness of all life. (Rothenberg 1995: 208)

As an ideology for militant environmentalism, deep ecology has taken on a life ofits own. It developed in the United States in the 1980s primarily as a way to react to the increasing rapaciousness of the forestry companies in the American western states (Taylor 1995). Like many other ideologies before and since, deep ecology "has become an attractive phrase for many people, who tend to bend the term to their needs without bothering to learn what it was originally meant to imply" (ibid.: 203). The founders of Earth First! and other spiritually-minded American environmentalists adapted deep ecology to their own purposes, and, by so doing, gave it an extremist connotation. Later, activists in Britain, in launching their own brand of militance to oppose the proliferation of highways across the countryside, transferred deep ecology back to Europe, apparently after discovering it in publications of the American organization, Earth First! (Wall 1999).

If the mainstream organizations stand for a kind of "incorporation" of activism into the dominant culture, splinter groups can be characterized as a sort of a "residual" cultural formation in relation to the emergent ecological culture. On the one hand, they are often infused with political ideologies, such as anarchism and even terrorism, that are part of a tradition of protest in many countries. On the other hand, they are characterized by their defense of "traditional" practices and ways of life and for the protection of animal species that seem to be in danger of elimination. Their resistance is based on an active identification with tradition: small-scale farming or shopkeeping, for example. Finally, these groups oppose any and all sorts of incorporation, and see the dominant culture of commercialization and globalization as their main enemy.

When Raymond Williams referred to residual cultural formations he was thinking of such things as a "rural way of life" or a sense of rural community, which, although weakened, and all but incorporated into the dominant culture, could nonetheless provide sources of opposition and alternative values that were still vibrant and alive. As he put it:

The residual, by definition, has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present. Thus certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture are nevertheless lived and practised on the basis of the residue - cultural as well as social - of some previous social and cultural institution. (Williams 1977: 122)

Militant environmentalists, in their active resistance, are an important part of the emergent culture but, like community-based activists, they have a tendency to "reduce" the struggle to the defense of one particular value and to disregard the need for compromise and innovation. Their protest can thus become what Williams termed "archaic," defending a remnant of the past that cannot realistically or meaningfully be revived in anything but a symbolic manner. This is even more apparent in the case of the animal liberation groups that sprang up in the 1990s, particularly among the youth sub-cultures that were often of a vegan orientation. In Sweden and Finland, where these groups are perhaps especially prominent and visible, it is not deep ecology as much as a traditional Nordic primitivism from the Viking age that seems to be an active ingredient in the "cosmology" of the animal liberation struggles.

While Earth First! activists appropriated deep ecology into the strongly religious, or spiritual, American environmental discourse, Nordic animal rights activists have primarily appropriated the ideas of the philosopher Peter Singer, who was one of the first to call for the liberation of animals in the 1970s. But while Singer, then as now, has developed his arguments for animal liberation from a primarily utilitarian perspective, the young activists in Sweden and Finland have frequently translated Singer's ideas into a very different kind of discursive framework (Singer 1975; Lundmark 2000). For many of the militants there is an interest in paganism and in anti-modernism as well as in animal liberation. More significantly, perhaps, an animistic set of beliefs that includes an active attempt to identify with the feelings of animals is being mobilized. When questioned, animal liberationists give voice to a kind of natural religion in which animals are imputed to have the same moral rights as well as the same kind of emotional capacity as humans. It is the suffering of animals - in scientific experiments, in captivity, in food industries - that most infuriates them. As one of them has put it: "People can be superior to other animals in many ways, but when it comes to suffering all have the same capacity to feel pain" (quoted in Lundmark 2000: 118).

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