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To Wrench or Not to Wrench: A Brief History of Direct Action in the Environmental Movement and its Potential Consequences, Ethical Implications, and Effectiveness

Within the environmental movement, the question remains whether to use legal means of activism or extralegal guerrilla tactics.

It could be said that every major social movement can be divided into two main groups: above-ground advocacy, awareness, and reform activities; and below-ground, direct-action activities. The environmental movement is no exception, and its long history in the United States is rife with acts of sabotage, vandalism, arson, and various other extra-legal activities. Among environmental circles and groups, there is perhaps no greater source of contention and debate than whether to engage in direct action or stick to the democratic process; and, indeed, the entire history of the movement could be charted on two different graphs. Noted environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Audubon Society, etc. have taken great care to distinguish themselves from the more direct action-oriented groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth First! (EF!), and the Sea Shepherds, sometimes even working directly against their action-oriented counterparts due to the “negative image” that potentially looms across the movement as a whole.

For individuals who are concerned with the earth and want to do their part in preserving and conserving the environment, a basic but thorough exploration of the ethical, legal, and practical implications of engaging in “monkeywrenching,” or direct-action activities, is needed. In order to fully understand the nature of direct-action in the U.S. today, we must first take a look at the history of the environmental movement and how direct action, also known as monkeywrenching or ecotage, has shaped our understanding of environmental activism and the effectiveness of such actions.

It is hard to identify the beginning of the environmental movement in the U.S., as there have always been individuals who have cared for the natural world and, therefore, have sought to protect it from those who would profit off of its destruction. For the purposes of this essay, let us start with December 7, 1972, when Harrison Schmitt, one of three members aboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft, turns and looks through the porthole of his small craft and snaps the first full-view photo of the planet Earth. In artistic terms, it’s nothing remarkable: a small, pale-blue circle with swirls of white obscuring most of the terrain, which are the brown and green hues of Southern Africa. In terms of mankind’s relationship with the earth, it is a breathtaking and life-changing moment. To see our earth not as a vast resource-pile to consume and destroy but as a small, fragile blue dot is truly an awe-inspiring and perspective-changing moment, and a moment that changed how many people saw and related to our planet. Several books were published in the late 1960s and early 1970s that contributed to the rising awareness of environmentalism, most notable of which were “Silent Spring,” “The Population Bomb,” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Several national incidents also caused alarm and concern for what our technology was really capable of, with the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio in 1969, and the catastrophic oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969. On April 22, 1970, America celebrated its first Earth Day, with an unparalleled twenty million people taking to the streets, parks, and other public areas to advocate for ecological responsibility and awareness.

The first Earth Day was a critical point in the environmental movement – a moment that suggested it was ok to care about the earth without being labeled a “hippie,” “radical,” or “communist.” With that cultural shift came the emergence of a new class of environmental advocates – the rich and famous who could afford $500-a -plate dinners to benefit endangered species, and who quickly formed the political allegiances and factions of the mainstream environmental movement. As could be expected, with the emergence of the affluent environmentalist came the alter-ego of the radical activist.

The first direct-action environmental group was Earth First! (EF)[1], founded in 1980 by several disgruntled members of other mainstream environmental groups who were disheartened by the hijacking of the movement by some of the main contributors to environmental destruction: politicians, ranch-owners, corporate CEO’s, and oil barons. EF started slowly, engaging in “passive,” non-violent, civil-disobedience actions such as tree sitting, blocking logging roads, and street protests. Before a decade had passed, however, they had evolved as a much more potent enemy to industrialization than anyone would have expected. Tree-spiking, or driving huge nails into trees in an area doomed to be clear-cut, in order to break the saw-blades and discourage logging companies from cutting down old-growth forests, became a widespread issue for logging companies, culminating in the injury of a mill worker in Northern California in 1987 [2]. Billboarding – or burning, cutting down, or otherwise defacing billboards – was a popular tool of resistance in the Southwest for many years until it spread to California and the Pacific Northwest, eventually creating the Billboard Liberation Front in San Francisco, CA.[3]Arson slowly emerged as the preferred method of resistance, however, and was co-opted by other emerging environmental and animal rights groups- most notably the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)[4] and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) [5] in the early 1990s.

Starting in 1995, environmental sabotage gained national attention with the arson of the Dutch Dairy Girl Factory in Eugene, OR, where two dairy trucks were destroyed with homemade incendiary devices, causing over $150,000 in damages. Less than a year later, two forest service ranger stations were torched in Detroit, OR and Oakridge, OR, causing over five million dollars in damage. The ELF claimed responsibility for these attacks and described them as protests against the corrupt and irresponsible way in which the forest service was managing the Oregon wild lands, particularly allowing timber companies to clear-cut protected forest areas. These attacks, while very damaging and concerning to the public and forestry industry, were only the beginning.

A horse slaughterhouse was burned in 1997 in Redmond, OR, which was followed quickly with a torching of two BLM horse-corrals in Burns, OR and Rock Springs, WY. The horse-corrals supplied healthy, wild horses caught on public lands to slaughterhouses in order to clear the lands for deforestation and sell the meat to unaware consumers. These three actions together caused over one and a half million dollars in damages, and the slaughterhouse was never rebuilt, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of wild horses.

1998 was an especially active year for environmental sabotage – starting with the arson of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services Center and the USDA Animal Damage Control Office, both located in Olympia, WA. Less than three months later, the Redwood Coast Trucking Company in Arcata, CA was targeted due to its participation in logging activities. Although twelve trucks were targeted, only one actually burned. To cap the year off, ELF/ALF staged its biggest direct action ever by targeting the Vail Mountain Ski Facility in Vail, CO, which was built on one of the last natural habitats for the endangered Lynx in Colorado despite numerous protests and pleas to preserve the area. Two lodges, a ski patrol headquarters, and four chair-lifts were destroyed in a highly coordinated and executed attack that ended up costing over twelve million dollars in damages.

Numerous acts of environmental sabotage in the first years of the twenty-first century brought even more national attention and concern to environmental issues: the Superior Lumber Company arson in Glendale, OR, the Childers Meat Company arson in Eugene, OR, the Legend Ridge Mansion arson in Boulder CO, the Jefferson Poplar Farm arson in Clatskanie OR, the University of Washington Arson in Seattle WA, the Joe Romania SUV dealership arson in Eugene OR, and the San Diego Condominium Arsons in San Diego, CA, all contributed to the formation of the FBI’s “Operation Backfire” in 2004, which aimed to uncover and prosecute members of various animal and environmental rights groups who had engaged in “eco-terrorism.” Within two years, the FBI had indicted eighteen individuals in the case. Of those eighteen, thirteen received lengthy prison sentences, one committed suicide in jail, and several others were given plea-bargains in exchange for snitching on their companions. Not only did Operation Backfire put away many leaders and icons in the environmental/ animal-rights movement, but it also set a precedent in dealing with similar actions in the future – most notably the prosecutors’ ability to label individuals who had engaged in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience as “terrorists,” and thereby seeking punishments as severe as life sentences in prison.

Not only did this strike a blow to the activist community, but it also played a key role in influencing public opinion. In legal terms, it allowed for the adoption of new laws and policies to further enforce the power of Federal and Local Governments to treat nonviolent activists with the same crushing force that had formerly been reserved for violent extremists. Astonishingly, the FBI currently considers ELF, EF, and ALF, ” A more serious threat to domestic security than Al-Qaeda,” despite these organizations having killed or injured not a single person, and despite the fact that almost all of the targets were subjected to lengthy, aboveground advocacy, protests, and pleas before the activists resorted to civil disobedience as a last resort (when democracy didn’t work)[6]. The tactics used by the FBI to bring down the ALF and ELF cells during Operation Backfire have been widely criticized and condemned by various human rights groups, government watchdog groups, and free-speech advocates all over the world. Gross invasions of privacy were considered “justifiable” in the light of “the considerable financial damage” inflicted on the logging, building, and agricultural industries; and, as a result, phones were tapped, emails were read, individuals were threatened and coerced into snitching out their friends, and undercover informants were sent to infiltrate and collect data on so-called “suspected terrorists,” all without warrants or any form of government supervision.[7] The post-9/11 hysteria was unfortunately seen by corporations and government bodies as an opportunity to further their own interests. As such, by capitalizing on the fear and panic that is produced by any mention of the word “terrorism,” the FBI was able to manipulate the public into seeing nonviolent acts of conscience as the actions of violent, thoughtless criminals.

Not only was Operation Backfire a gross violation of civil rights and judicial protocol, but it was largely ineffective and futile. The arrests and prosecutions of the ALF and ELF members did not stop or even slow down the movement. Both organizations, as well as many other direct-action environmental organizations, reported increasing membership, donations, and public support following the trial and subsequent media coverage. Several acts of monkeywrenching have occurred since then, albeit with more covert tactics. Many of the thirteen activists currently in prison are actively engaged in the struggle, writing newsletters and articles from their cells, giving interviews to reporters, and studying the works and writings of other activists who have been imprisoned throughout history for opposing destructive regimes – Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Huey Newton, etc.

The debate and actions continue as to the fate of our planet. Many people hold the traditional view that the planet is here for our enjoyment and exploitation, and needs no consideration or protection. On the other side of the pond are the “deep ecologists” who argue that earth and all of her inhabitants are sacred and have inherent value, regardless of their purpose or value to humans. For those individuals whose daily interactions with the voracious appetite of industrial society and the unprecedented plundering of the earth’s resources lead them to feel as though something needs to change, there are often few choices presented. For those individuals who sense the overall futility in buying a Prius, switching to reusable shopping bags, and voting for the Green Party; and who want to actually do something to protect the few remaining sacred, un-commodified places and creatures in the world, the democratic process seems like a carrot on a stick – a dangling distraction to buy “greener” things while the corporations continue to do whatever the hell they want and aren’t held accountable for any of the consequences.

For these individuals, engaging in direct-action often feels like the only choice left. So, the question remains: Are direct-action activities effective or justifiable, and what are the potential consequences? Let’s break this down a bit.

Let’s start with effectiveness. Are direct-action, extra-legal activities an effective way to combat deforestation, tar-sands projects, fur-farms, or any other environmental destruction currently taking place? It entirely depends on what your goal is. In some instances, the direct threat to animals or forests has been effectively stopped, as in the burning of horse-slaughterhouses and corrals, the release of animals from fur-farms, and the tree-spiking of large tracts of forest land which are still standing today. In many others, however, burned buildings were simply rebuilt, new animals were bred and slaughtered, and new equipment was ordered with almost no substantial loss to the offending company due to insurance policies. One could argue that rampant direct action actually harms the earth – as arson releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and necessitates the production and purchasing of more materials.

If, however, the goal is to create public awareness and concern for issues that are below the radar, they will almost always achieve that – as the media loves a good “eco-terrorism” story. The problem lies in what type of publicity this person or group may receive. Even with the flagrantly biased and ignorant coverage given by the media, the message is ultimately presented to the public, and will probably gain much more attention than a petition or a march would have. A case in point would be the vandalism committed by the Black Bloc during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. In the days leading up to the conference, over 50,000 protesters from all over the world gathered in Seattle to protest further economic exploitation, or “trade negotiations.” For the first several days of massive organized protests and demonstrations, there was a total media blackout, as the media did not want to lend any credence to the demonstrators or give their concerns any legitimacy. Only when a few members of an anarchist militia known as the Black Bloc began destroying corporate store fronts for companies which had been proven guilty of international criminal behavior did the media give any attention to the protests; however, did so with reckless bias, erroneously claiming that protesters, “hurled molotov cocktails at police” and committed “random acts of vandalism and destruction.”[8]Overall, the image presented to the public was not one of 50,000 deeply concerned, educated individuals who gathered to protest what they saw as the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants, but one of a group of angry, ignorant criminals who just wanted an excuse to break stuff. Regretful? Perhaps. Yet when compared to the 2001 WTO protests in Doha, Qatar, which accrued no property damage and, therefore, absolutely no media coverage, it becomes clear that sometimes even negative media attention is better than none. Such groups will sometimes deploy a very specific plan, well-prepared media releases, and eloquent spokespeople in an attempt to increase accurate public awareness, and to combat the expected media butchery and portrayal of such actions as mindlessly”violent” and “extremist.”

Many groups aren’t so inclined to perform major acts of direct-action which could warrant an FBI investigation, yet still engage in monkeywrenching. These folks view small acts of dissent as being much more effective than large-scale acts, and will engage in everything from passing out literature, pulling up survey stakes, cutting fences, gluing locks, putting sugar in gas tanks, and generally being a nuisance to ecological offenders and their subsidiaries. In terms of a long, drawn-out battle, small, everyday acts of resistance can have enormous and often decisive effects. The defeat of the Confederate states in the American Civil War is a great example of this phenomenon. Very early in the war there was a widespread crop failure which heavily affected the Southern states. As a result, many of the confederate soldiers, who were concerned about their families’ farms and land, deserted the front lines, went home to their families, and resisted conscription for the rest of the war. This theme only gained momentum as the war progressed; until, by late 1865, almost a quarter of a million troops had deserted the fight and gone home to tend to their farms. There was no organized social movement of desertion, no union leader or revolutionary spokesman, no great essays or books calling for mass desertion – only the small actions of many, many individuals that added up to a major event which shaped the political landscape of the nation and the world in an untold number of ways. Those who subscribe to such an approach typically recommend the book, ” Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching ,” by Dave Foreman and Bill Haywood.

Moving on to the question of being justifiable. Is it morally feasible to break the law and employ property damage in order to further one’s own personal convictions and beliefs? This question is much too big and multi-faceted to completely explore here, so I will provide a series of examples to challenge some widely-held beliefs about this.

Example one: The Boston Tea Party, a popular event that precipitated the American Revolution, has received much attention in recent years due to the formation of a large political body that derives its name from the event. To put it bluntly, the original Tea Party was a non-violent, direct-action that destroyed private property in order to make a political point. The State (the British Empire at the time) declared it an “act of tyranny and treason, which calls for swift and relentless suppression”[9] Yet it is widely hailed as an act of patriotism and courage, not one of terrorism, due to the fact that the “terrorists” (as per the British Empire) essentially won and got to write the history books. Similar acts of economic sabotage have taken place in almost every social movement throughout history: the British Luddites destruction of weavers to protest factory conditions, the burning of slave auction-houses and slave ships during the abolitionist movement in the U.S., the bombing of the Chancellor Exchequer David Lloyd George’s villa in Surrey during the women’s suffragist movement in Britain, the many acts of economic sabotage used to get the U.S. military out of Vietnam, South Africa’s anti-apartheid groups, India’s independence movement, the list goes on. Yet not a single one of these acts are labeled as terrorism, due to the fact that the actions were legitimized and seen as necessary in the retrospect of history.

Example two: ” The Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. This we know. All things are connected by the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. ” Chief Seattle of the Duwamish people originally spoke these words, and they have been repeated by many activists and protesters who resonate with the feeling that the earth is a living entity which deserves respect and love, and who are willing to fight others who wish to hurt her. As one native Huron woman said while being arrested during protests against Canadian Tar Sands project, “Wouldn’t you do this too, if they were killing your mother?” For individuals of this persuasion, it matters little whether a few men in fancy suits exchanged money to “buy” areas of land to destroy them. It matters very little that a bunch more men in slightly less fancy suits declare their actions “illegal” and subsequently imprison them. Ask yourself: would you employ property damage in order to save your mother?

Example three: “Property is theft!” and property acquired through coercion and extortion is doubly so. The concept of private property as a social construct has gained momentum and popularity through the past few centuries, and the arguments supporting this are very compelling when seen through the eyes of the social historian. The concept that private property precipitates economic disparity and is thus a crime has been argued by such varied theorists as Rousseau, Proudhon, Marx, Locke, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. A very basic explanation of this theory is outlined in Proudhon’s book, ” What is Property? Or, an inquiry into the principle of right and government. ” For those whom employ this train of thought and see the destruction of the earth as an illegitimate and immoral task, property destruction is not an immoral act. To them, the earth belongs to everyone; and, therefore, everyone has a right to say what should happen to it; and when a few men are profiting off of the pillaging of the earth, then it is not immoral to destroy the property with which they are destroying the earth with, as it never belonged to them in the first place.

We come to the final question, what are the potential consequences for engaging in direct action activities? Up until the culmination of the FBI’s Operation Backfire, the consequences were relatively minor. Property destruction was seen as just that- property destruction and nothing more. If someone was caught monkeywrenching, they would probably receive a fine and maybe a few days in County Jail. In post-Operation Backfire times, however, the game has totally changed. Now, if someone is found guilty of engaging in acts of economic sabotage, they will most likely receive a lengthy prison sentence (depending on their willingness to “cooperate” or snitch) and are branded as a “terrorist” for the rest of their life. This seemingly draconian punishment has driven many activist groups underground, and has resulted in a wave of independently operated cells as well as a more covert approach to the ecological resistance movement. The consequences, if convicted of “eco-terrorism,” are indeed severe.

Even with these incredibly punitive and brutal tactics used against activists by the Federal Government, the resistance continues, and is growing. In the years following Operation Backfire, fields of GMO crops have been torched[10], more horse-slaughterhouses have been destroyed[11], GMO tree plantations have been cut down[12], fur-farms have been raided and animals set free, and many other small but effective actions have done their part to slow the industrial machine down and defend the earth against its predators and profiteers. We are currently engaged in a period of history where capital is lord, and all who stand in the way of this lord will be driven under the wheels of “progress” and “industry.” It is often hard to see the context for this current social movement, as watching the advance of economic destruction often feels overwhelming and unstoppable. One can only wonder what history will tell of those eco-warriors, those brave abolitionists of speciesism and ecocide, and those who dared to throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of capitalism in the name of the earth and all of her inhabitants. We must not wonder for too long, however, and neglect our duty to resist,to fight, to act.



[7] “Green is the New Red” – Will Potter (2007)

[9] “Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution through British Eyes” – Christopher Hibbert (2002)

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