Violent Turns

Some members of Greenpeace had seen the conservative backlash coming even before the presidential election of 1980. According to Canadian member Paul Watson, the essential response had to be increasingly militant protest actions. Among other things, he did not want merely to scare away whalers by filming them; he advocated placing explosives on the hulls of their ships in order to cripple their livelihood. Greenpeace rejected such tactics, and in 1977 it rejected him as well. He formed his own organization, called the Sea Shepherds, outfitted with a refurbished ship that had been renamed Sea Shepherd. Watson described the 200-foot trawler as "the first ship in history dedicated to the enforcement of international marine wildlife conservation law." Whales, he added, now had their own navy.

That navy's first skirmish came off the coast of Portugal in 1979, when the Sea Shepherd rammed a ship that was illegally taking whales. Despite the attack, and Watson's willingness to own up to it for the authorities, the owners of the ship refused to press charges because of the publicity a trial would generate. In this way, the Sea Shepherds attempted to augment the public exposure that Greenpeace had found so effective in quelling environmental offenses. Watson regarded himself as offending the offenders, daring them to strike back.

Some members of Greenpeace might have admired his dedication and nerve, but they would not have been inclined to admit it publicly. Taunting authority was one thing, but menacing it with illegal action was a line that many conscientious members of society refuse to cross. Watson continued to cross it as often as he could. And as the political atmosphere of the 1980s began to wear down the environmental movement, he was joined by others.

In 1980 American activist Dave Foreman felt the same frustration as Watson. "Too many environmentalists have grown to resemble bureaucrats," said Foreman. "Pale from too much indoor light; weak from sitting too long behind desks; co-opted by too many politicians." By way of response, he founded Earth First!, an organization aimed at putting activists like himself back in the middle of the fray. Earth First! led skirmishes that ranged from high-profile pranks—such as hanging a symbolic "crack" down the face of an unwanted dam—to outright sabotage, such as wrecking logging or road-building equipment in wilderness areas. These more serious offenses were labeled "ecotage," and the group took great pride in making them as inventive and disruptive as possible. In particular, Earth First! was linked with a practice known as tree-spiking, randomly nailing large spikes deep into trees in a logging area. Loggers and mill workers were then warned that some of these trees might contain these large pieces of metal, which could cause serious injury if they were struck with a saw blade. Forestry workers felt threatened, and logging companies remained unsure of how to deal with this tactic, even though it appears that there has never been a proven case of personal harm caused by tree spiking.

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Others have taken such radical action a step further. Citing a philosophy called deep ecology, these activists accord animals the same inherent rights as any human being. From this viewpoint, animals raised for food on farms or being used in laboratory experiments deserve to be "liberated." Groups dedicated to this purpose have gone so far as to break into research facilities and remove the animals. When such vandalism became more common in the mid-1980s, the scientific community was shocked. Soon, however, that response gave way to a more concerted campaign to raise awareness of the ways in which animal experimentation can promote the well-being of both animals and humans. In addition, the use of animals has become subject to ever-closer scrutiny, fostering a regulatory framework that has steadily reduced their use, in favor of other experimenting and testing methods.

While none of these initiatives may be enough to satisfy the most extreme elements of the animal-rights movement, members of that movement are highly diversified. Some criticize the extremists for idealizing animals, as well as for ignoring the violence and brutality that often mark the lives of creatures who already find themselves "liberated" in the wild. In this way, moving from a purely philosophical outlook to a more broadly based scientific understanding of the issue, many environmental activists retreated from the most radical positions and began searching for more practical and effective.

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