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In the latter decades of the twentieth century, terrorist activity expanded into an ever-present threat in the United States of America and elsewhere, penetrating the fabric of national consciousness much as the specter of Communism had done during the Cold War years. Generally perpetrated by political and religio-political fanatics, terrorism has, however, developed a new and significant strain, perceived to have noble aims but intended, nonetheless, to wreak domestic havoc. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The term "eco-terrorism" (or ecoterrorism) refers to two different kinds of terrorism: (1) terrorism intended to hinder activities considered harmful to the environment, and (2) terrorism intended to damage the environment of an enemy.

In February 1991, when Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait during the Gulf War, they set more than 600 wells in the Greater Burgan oilfield on fire, a deed that has been referred to as "the world's worst act of eco-terrorism." Most popular cultural references to eco-terrorism, however, refer not to this second form of terrorism but to the first, which intends to preserve the environment, not harm it. Used in this manner, eco-terrorism is a highly contested term. Ron Arnold, a leader of the anti-environmental "Wise Use" movement, argues for a broad definition of eco-terrorism that includes almost every crime committed on behalf of the environment, even acts of civil disobedience. Many environmentalists, however, passionately disagree with this usage, preferring to distinguish between "eco-sabotage" (an assault on inanimate objects) and terrorism (an assault on living things). The environmentalist David Brower, for instance, has argued that the real terrorists are those who pollute and despoil the earth, not those who seek to protect it.

This distinction between violence toward property and violence toward living things reflects the influence of "deep ecology," a philosophy upon which much radical environmental action has been based. In 1973, the Norwegian Arne Naess distinguished between what he called "shallow ecology" (or human-centered environmentalism) and "deep ecology" (or earth-centered environmentalism). A central component of deep ecology, according to Naess, is the idea of "Self-realization," in which the "Self" is understood to include not just the individual consciousness, but all of human and non-human nature. Some environmentalists, therefore, argue that eco-sabotage cannot be labeled terrorism, because from this perspective it is actually an act of self-defense.

The roots of eco-sabotage or eco-terrorism can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, when bands of English craftsmen known as Luddites destroyed the textile machinery that was rendering their skills increasingly redundant. Generally masked and operating at night, the Luddites claimed to be led by Ned Ludd, an apparently mythical figure whom many modern eco-saboteurs have taken as their namesake. Henry David Thoreau, though by no means an eco-terrorist, has also been cited as a forerunner of the radical environmental movement. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Thoreau mourned the inability of shad to bypass the Billerica Dam in the Concord River. "I for one am with thee," Thoreau wrote of the fish, "and who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica Dam?"

Modern eco-terrorism came into being after the first Earth Day, held in 1970, when a handful of environmentalists in the United States began using force to achieve their political goals. In Arizona, the "Arizona Phantom" tore up railroad tracks and disabled equipment in an attempt to stop construction of a coal mine in the desert highlands. A group of college-age boys calling themselves the "Eco-Raiders" burned billboards, disabled bulldozers, and vandalized development projects in and around Tucson, causing over half a million dollars of damage. In Illinois, a man going by the name of "The Fox" plugged drainage pipes, capped factory smokestacks, and dumped industrial waste from a U.S. Steel plant into the office of the company's chief executive. In Michigan, the "Billboard Bandits" cut down roadside signs with chainsaws, and in Minnesota, a group of farmers calling themselves the "Bolt Weevils" disabled 14 electrical towers that were part of a high-voltage power line being built across the prairie.

These early eco-radicals may have been encouraged by the founding in 1971 of the environmental group Greenpeace, which advocated non-violent direct action against high-profile targets. They may also have been influenced by the publication of several books, including The Anarchist Cookbook (1971), by William Powell; Ecotage! (1972), edited by Sam Love and David Obst; and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1976), by Edward Abbey, a novel about four "ecoteurs" who roam the Southwestern United States blowing up bridges and vandalizing bulldozers in the name of environmental protection.

The Monkey Wrench Gang not only gave the activity of eco-sabotage its popular moniker ("monkeywrenching"), it also inspired the formation of the environmental group most closely associated with eco-terrorism in the popular imagination—Earth First! Founded in 1980 by Dave Foreman and other disenchanted activists, Earth First! took as its motto the phrase "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth," and its journal served as a clearinghouse for monkeywrenching tactics, though the group never officially advocated the practice. In 1985, however, Foreman edited the first of several editions of Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, which contained instructions for such actions as how to spike trees, close roads, and burn machinery. By 1990, monkeywrenching was estimated to be costing business and industry from $20 to $25 million a year, had spawned federal legislation against tree-spiking, and had caught the attention of the FBI, Scotland Yard, and other intelligence organizations.

Whether incidents of eco-terrorism are increasing or decreasing in frequency is unclear, due in part to the elastic nature of the term itself. Opponents of eco-terrorism point to incidents such as the October 1998 burning of a Vail, Colorado, ski resort as evidence that eco-terrorism is on the rise. The arson, which caused some $12 million in damage, was attributed to the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group, working to prevent the expansion of the ski resort into one of the last known habitats of the lynx. Author David Helvarg, however, contends that radical environmentalists have become less likely to resort to monkeywrenching tactics and more likely to employ civil disobedience to achieve their goals. Similarly, he claims that environmentalists are more likely to be victims of violence than to act violently. In 1998, for instance, David Chain, an Earth First! protestor, was killed by a tree felled by a Pacific Lumber logger in Humboldt County, California.

Whatever the future of eco-terrorism, its appearance in such films as Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, novels such as Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, and such computer games as Eidos Interactive's Final Fantasy VII, suggests that this highly contested term has quite clearly hit a nerve.

—Daniel J. Philippon

Further Reading:

Abbey, Edward. The Monkey Wrench Gang. New York, Avon, 1976.

Arnold, Ron. Ecoterror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature: The World of the Unabomber. Bellevue, Washington, Free Enterprise Press, 1997.

Foreman, Dave, editor. Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. 2nd ed. Tucson, Ned Ludd Books, 1985.

Helvarg, David. The War against the Greens: The "Wise-Use" Movement, the New Right, and Anti-environmental Violence. San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1994.

Lee, Martha F. Earth First! Environmental Apocalypse. New York, Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Manes, Christopher. Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization. Boston, Little, Brown, 1990.