Ecological direct action groups

After a week of rumours the raid came with a few hours warning. Our roving security team spotted a two-mile long column of cars, trucks and buses entering a hangar at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, one mile south of the site. Our whistles blew as Ryder trucks pulled up in front of each house, disgorging masked, black-clad police wielding rifles and battering rams. It was immediately apparent the authorities knew where each and every barricaded site and lock-down was, despite some having been built only two weeks prior. Police filled entire houses with tear gas, choking and nauseating the protesters whose arms were locked into barrels. Many unlocked voluntarily, only to be pepper-sprayed while trying to make their way out. Police also tipped over a tripod while a sitter was still on top and maced a man who was sitting on a roof.

(Minnehaha Free State in Minnesota in December 1998 on Earth First! (US) website1)

This account describes the eviction of seven houses squatted by Earth First! activists in the USA protesting against the re-routing of a highway through Native American land. The scenario would be familiar to radical environmental protesters in other countries, many of whom also act under the banner of Earth First! This is not a formal organisation. You cannot become a member and not all radical environmental protesters regard themselves as Earth First!ers. It is by taking autonomous direct action in defence of environmental goals, including being prepared to break the law, that one becomes an Earth First!er. Direct action is, therefore, the defining characteristic and purpose of Earth First! and similar radical environmental groups. The spread of the name Earth First! is due to the inspiration provided by the US activists who formed the first Earth First! group in 1980. Other groups in Europe and Australia share their rejection of the compromises made by established environmental pressure groups and their strategy of militant confrontation with those seen as responsible for the worst environmental abuses.

This chapter focuses on ecological direct action (EDA) as a type of environmental group as well as a form of action. Other environmental groups such as Greenpeace2 that use ecological direct action do not have the counter-cultural ethos, commitment to non-hierarchical forms of organisation or the radical ideology of EDA groups such as Earth First! (Rucht 1995). There is no single organisation, no national office or administrative centre, or any other formal national co-ordinating structure for these groups in the UK or Australia and only a relatively weak central base in the USA. Instead, it is a network of groups based in local areas, some calling themselves Earth First! groups, others with different names, but sharing a common identity, form of action and linked by network ties. There is also a national network of those involved in environmental direct action - in the UK activists meet at Winter and Summer Earth First! gatherings and sometimes to plan national campaigns or particular protest actions. In the USA there are annual gatherings to discuss strategy. In Britain there is a regular (approximately monthly) national newsletter called Action Update, the editorship of which is rotated between local groups annually, and other national-level publications such as the more hard core and discussion-based journal Do or Die! In the USA the monthly Earth First! Journal has long been the main source of movement news. In all three countries in the last few years email news lists have also become more important in networking actions. Personal ties and solidarity based on common participation in protest actions over the past nine years have created strong bonds between activists from different areas. The separation between local groups is also blurred by the frequent movement of individuals between local areas. Thus while there is a national EDA network, it is paralleled by autonomous local groups which often have a strong sense of their own identity.

The protest action of these groups is often in support of specific local environmental campaigns, and many EDA activists are also involved in non-counter-cultural local campaign groups (McNeish 2000) but despite the fluid boundaries between them, ecological direct action groups are distinct analytically from local environmental groups in important ways.

First, they are much more likely to justify their protest as a strategy for bringing about comprehensive social and political change towards a radical green society.

Second, in contrast to both local environmental groups and environmental movement organisations (EMOs) the protest actions of EDA groups are rooted in an alternative culture. This is manifested in their clothes, their ecological lifestyle, the rejection of dominant values and institutions and their non-hierarchical form of organisation. The groups involved in ecological direct action are at the radical end of the green spectrum.

Third, they reject the existing EMOs as inadequate or, at best, insufficient to deal with the environmental crisis. Those who initiated EDA groups in the USA, Britain and Australia did so as a result of disillusion with the compromises made by EMOs. They argue that when EMOs accept incremental gains, they help to legitimise policies and a decision-making process that favours development over the environment. Fears over the loss of assets from fines or legal actions taken against them or the loss of support from cheque-book subscribers, make it difficult for EMOs to take radical action. But for radical environmentalists, unless there is action to achieve radical change, the future looks bleak. The style of organisation adopted by EDA groups is intended to offset the limitations of the EMOs. Because they have a decentralised and informal organisation EDA groups have no resources which could be targeted by their opponents and which might limit their ability to act. Moreover, since action is the responsibility of the individual or of small groups it is the individual rather than the organisation who has to take responsibility for the consequences.

Fourth, individual moral obligations to do what is right count for everything, political obligation to the state counts for little or nothing. Although the heritage of Gandhi and Martin Luther King is acknowledged, the ecological direct action of radical environmental groups is more confrontational than earlier forms of civil disobedience. King's emphasis on upholding the law and American and Christian values is not echoed by contemporary environmental EDAers. Radical environmentalists often see themselves as acting consciously in opposition to dominant values that help to sustain environmental destruction. Illegal action is justified both because the political, social and economic system itself is illegitimate and because it is seen as the most effective means to achieve change.

Ecological direct action by these groups therefore includes the kind of civil disobedience where arrests are anticipated and even desirable, and in which protesters are prepared to account for their actions publicly, but it is also broader. It can include actions where protesters seek to evade arrest, and covert actions such as 'monkey-wrenching ... unlawful sabotage of industrial extraction/development equipment and infrastructure, as a means of striking at the Earth's destroyers at the point where they commit their crimes'3. Ecological direct action refers to 'action where protesters engage in forms of action designed not only or necessarily to change government policy or to shift the climate of public opinion through the media, but to change environmental conditions around them directly' (Doherty, Paterson and Seel 2000: 1).

Damage to property is usually reported as violence in the media and such actions are condemned by the major EMOs. For EDA groups, however, property damage is non-violent because it is 'aimed only at inanimate objects'. As the website of US Earth First! Journal states: 'It is the final step in the defense of the wild, the deliberate action taken by the Earth defender when all other measures have failed, the process whereby the wilderness defender becomes the wilderness acting in self-defense'. More controversial, however, is the question of whether violence against people is justifiable. For some activists non-violence is a principle that justifies their action, but for others this is a dogma that needs to be challenged. This debate will be examined further below.

Attempts to generalise about EDA groups are made difficult by their rapid evolution and change, and their informal character. Groups of this kind can be found throughout northern and eastern Europe, but are strongest and have greatest impact in English-speaking countries, notably the USA, Australia and Britain. However, as the analysis of groups in those countries shows, even where there has been most mutual influence, there are still significant differences. In the USA and Australia the defence of wilderness has been the primary raison d'ĂȘtre for Earth First! and similar groups, although in recent years this has been complemented by their involvement in protest against capitalist institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In Britain and the rest of Europe anti-capitalist urban protest has been more important for longer, and direct action in rural areas has more often been alongside existing local environmental campaigns. Another obstacle to universal definitions is that, more so even than in the green parties, radical environmentalists tend to be anti-doctrinal, and there is remarkably little interest in developing a common political theory within countries or between them. Only in the USA has there been a significant theoretical dispute - between those who gave absolute priority to the defence of wilderness and those who saw social and ecological concerns as inter-related. In the USA deep ecology has had a more obvious influence, elsewhere activists tend to be linked by a shared identity and ethos that is reflected more in common practices and ideas implicit in the nature of their protest than by a definable philosophy. While in recent years more activists have adopted an anarchist identity there is no sense that particular writers such as Kropotkin or even the principal modern theorist of eco-anarchism Murray Bookchin (1982), are widely read or discussed. This is certainly a part of the green movement that has no required reading.

The first part of this chapter will analyse the characteristics of EDA groups, drawing mainly on evidence from Britain, the USA and Australia. This will be followed by an examination of two related questions often asked about these groups. The first is the debate over the use of violence; the second is their role within what has been called the global anti-capitalist movement.

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