Ecological direct action in the USA Australia and Britain


In the USA ecological direct action is more synonymous with Earth First! than in Australia and Britain. Earth First! was founded in the USA in April 1980 by five environmentalists disillusioned by their experiences with the major environmental organisations. They viewed the compromises of the pressure groups as inadequate in the face of the erosion of wilderness and threats to biodiversity This was brought to a head after the Forest Service's second Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) in which less than a quarter of the area under consideration had been designated as protected wilderness (Scarce 1990). According to movement legend, it was after a hike in the Picante desert in Mexico that the five decided to found a more militant group. In doing so, they drew on the guidance provided by Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). This novel was a thinly disguised call to arms for wilderness defenders. It heroised the actions of four eco-saboteurs prepared to 'undermine road building, bridge building, dam building - anything that threatens the wild places of Utah and the surrounding states' (dust jacket). Like the monkey wrench gang, Earth First! was prepared to support the use of ecological sabotage (or ecotage)

wherever it was strategically appropriate. It did not directly advocate ecotage or any illegal actions, but in publishing Ecodefense: a field guide to monkeywrenching (Foreman 1985) and in calling those who took part 'heroes', the position of the organisation was clear.

The driving force in the formation of Earth First! was Dave Foreman, who had been senior campaigner with the Wilderness Society in Washington and came from a right-wing and military background. The initial base of the movement was in the south-west, but effective publicity and Earth First! roadshows produced new recruits nation-wide. Since there was no formal membership of Earth First! after 1982 there are no reliable estimates of the numbers of activists, but there were probably no more than a few thousand at any one time.4 In the 1980s more than half the journal's subscribers were in California (Zakin 1993: 358) and the West Coast remains the strongest base of activity. Most activity was based in local networks with a national gathering of the most committed activists at the annual Round River Rendezvous. In the intervening period the main linkage between local groups was through the movement's journal. While the movement was still very small in the early 1980s the strategic direction provided by Foreman was accepted. However, the journal's editorial policy became a matter of dispute in the second half of the 1980s when strategic divisions began to emerge within Earth First! On one side were those like Foreman who saw Earth First!'s purpose as to take practical actions that produced tangible results in saving wilderness. Carefully targeted sabotage of development projects or logging in wilderness areas would increase the costs for developers and make development uneconomical. Public protests were also useful, as when tree sitting was used to increase the costs of logging in the forests of the Pacific north-west. But Foreman, and others such as Chris Manes, rejected the broadening of Earth First!'s goals to include alliances with other organisations campaigning on issues of social justice. In their view, human nature was irredeemable and humanity needed to 'return to the Neanderthal'. They expected an ecological meltdown and speculated that only an ecological elite with the correct 'wilderness gene' would be able to survive it (Lee 1995).

The second 'holistic' group accepted the priority of defending wilderness and the likelihood of ecological collapse but thought that progress to a better society was still possible. The best means to defend the wilderness was through direct action, but based upon the inter-relationship between issues of social justice and ecology. Thus, in tackling the logging industry, activists such as Judi Bari tried to build an alliance with logging communities by showing how clear-cutting undermined the long-term future of the timber industry and only served the interests of the largest companies. The 'holies' were influenced by new social movement ideas and wanted Earth First! to develop as a political force. Bari made links with the remnants of the International Workers of the World, or the Wobblies as they are better known, whose agitprop and direct action tradition had earlier inspired Foreman (Zakin 1993: 361). While actions that directly preserved wilderness were seen as justifiable, they needed to be complemented by actions that built the base of the movement. As Bari put it: 'Dave Foreman wants Earth First! to remain small, pure and radical. I want it to be big, impure and radical' (quoted in Lee 1995: 128).

The split deepened following the furore created by two infamous articles written by Chris Manes in the Earth First! Journal in 1987, touching on an issue that divided the two groups, namely poverty and the causes of over-population. Manes wrote that Aids and famine could have good effects in reducing overpopulation, although he did not disregard the suffering of Aids victims. The holies rejected Manes' argument because it did not tackle the causes of overpopulation, primary among which was inequality. No letters on Manes's article were published in the Earth First! Journal, edited by Foreman. The 'holies' felt that debate was being stifled and the Round River Rendezvous were often bedevilled by disagreements between supporters of the two positions. Among the more important incidents were the expulsion of an eco-anarchist group from the 1987 Round River Rendezvous after a confrontation with Abbey and the burning of an American flag by 'holies' at the 1989 Rendezvous (Zakin 1993: 409). Another bone of contention was the suspicion among holies that Foreman was using the resources of the journal to finance activities that he supported to the exclusion of other groups. Mike Roselle, a leading 'holie', and like Foreman, one of the five original founders of Earth First! established a 'Nomadic Action Group' (using the name of an Australian EDA group) of Earth First!ers committed to direct action, which was funded separately from the journal. Disputes continued over the failure by the Earth First! Journal to cover the public EDA actions favoured by the holies (Maenz 2000).

Two major incidents increased the stakes of the conflict. In 1989 after an undercover operation by an infiltrator, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) arrested a group of Earth First!ers in Arizona who were trying to cut a power line. Foreman was later arrested and charged with financing the operation. Although the FBI had failed in its aim of entrapping Foreman in carrying out ecotage, it had for the first time been able to successfully prosecute Earth First! activists for serious ecotage. The second incident was the bomb that exploded under the seat of Judi Bari's car in April 1990, causing her serious injury. She had been organising a Redwood Summer of protest against logging of old growth forest, evoking the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign of the civil rights movement. Police charges against Bari and her partner, a musician and poet, Darryl Cherney, were dropped, and it is extremely unlikely that they were, as the police initially professed to believe, carrying a home-made bomb (Littletree 2000). Neither of these traumas was sufficient to reunite the movement. Arguments over the journal and the philosophy of the movement continued until in August 1990 Foreman announced he was leaving Earth First! because it had been 'taken over by West Coast hippies' (Lee 1995: 137). This was followed by the resignation of the journal's staff.

From 1990 onwards the 'holies' were in control. Since then there has been a clearer commitment to the importance of public EDA and to taking social justice seriously. The journal now carries extensive reports on direct action campaigns in the USA and other countries. Most activists have remained within

Earth First! rather than following Foreman and other wildies. Although it remained an uneasy combination of biocentrists and ecological leftists, most of those who remained were more prepared to live with their differences. Activists such as Bari, who had socialist parents and past experience in trade union, feminist and anti-nuclear energy campaigns, succeeded in contradicting Foreman's assertion that Earth First! was not on the left (Lee 1995: 106). Earth First! continued to campaign against logging, with long-term camps at Headwaters, Cascadia and other parts of the Pacific North West and also against other development projects such as new roads through Native American lands at Minnehaha. Earth First!ers also played an important role in the network that coordinated the protests against the meeting of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and subsequent protests such as those in Washington in April 2000 and Quebec in April 2001.

A new dimension of EDA campaigning in the US has developed in the form of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Although the ELF emerged from within the EDA network, its membership and activities are clandestine and its actions are not claimed publicly by Earth First! The ELF claims to have been inspired by British EDA5 in the 1990s but whereas there is no evidence that the ELF has ever really existed as a distinct group in Britain, the ELF in the USA has a press officer and a website and has claimed responsibility for many acts of ecological sabotage (or ecotage). The ELF describes its main aim as 'To inflict economic damage to those who profit from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment' and it has worked alongside the Animal Liberation Front in major incidents of sabotage since 1998. In October 1998 the ELF claimed responsibility for arson attacks in Vail, Colorado. The attacks were targeted at developers who, it was thought, were threatening the viability of a scheme to reintroduce Lynx to the area (The Observer, 25 October 1998). Since then targets for arson have included new houses on Long Island, in Kentucky and Arizona, deemed guilty of adding to urban sprawl and encroaching on nature, warehouses containing genetically modified (GM) cotton and offices of the US Forest Service and logging companies. In March 2001 damage by the ELF was calculated at more than $45 million dollars (The Guardian, 6 March 2001).

The ELF is linked to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and the latter hosts the ELF website6, which states that environmental and animal rights groups have to 'learn from each other what needs to happen to make other movements a real threat to the death industries'. In some areas the ELF and ALF overlap, but the ELF is also the inheritor of a long-standing tradition of ecotage in the US which has been revived by activists who have taken heart from the renewed militancy of direct action in Britain in the 1990s, Seattle and other protests. ELF groups can function alongside public campaigning of groups such as Earth First! without activists from the latter knowing who, if any, of their friends is carrying out ecotage. Small groups of this kind, or even individuals can work covertly and autonomously simply reporting action to the press or through the internet without needing to develop any public organisation. The analysis of Britain below shows that a similar repertoire of ecotage exists in Britain, but perhaps because there have been fewer large-scale cases of ecotage it has been less widely reported.7

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