If a Tree Falls

PBS Premiere: Sept. 13, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

Interview: Rik Scarce, Author of 'Eco-Warriors'

POV: In your book you lay out the history of the more radical wing of the environmental movement, starting with Greenpeace in the late 1970s, Earth First! in the early '80s, and then the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front in the '90s. Can you talk about where the mainstream movement was during those decades and why these groups emerged?

Professor Rik Scarce, author of 'Eco-Warriors'Rik Scarce: Perhaps the best way to describe where the mainstream was at is to personalize your question: When I picked up a copy of the Earth First! Journal for the first time, I was stunned. One article in particular made it clear that mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society and the Environmental Defense Fund were busy compromising away wilderness and other issues that naïve folks like me thought those groups were fighting for.

In other words, they were busy in the halls of Congress, in state legislatures, and in courtrooms doing what they had always been doing -- participating in the give-and-take of the democratic political process and litigating environmental abuses. Radical environmentalism was initially a conscious effort to give the mainstream some breathing room, to create an extreme position that would enable the mainstream to appear reasonable. In time, the radicals came to feel that the mainstream groups would never take advantage of the opening that they hoped to provide.

POV: What is monkey-wrenching?

Scarce: Monkey-wrenching/ecotage takes many different forms -- so many that Dave Foreman [founder of Earth First!] and an anonymous co-author wrote a book on the subject, Ecodefense. It's The Anarchist's Cookbook for the green set. Ecotage ranges from breaking into buildings and destroying computers to arson to ruining the engines of bulldozers and other implements of destruction, and on and on.

Perhaps the most controversial ecotage tactic is tree spiking, where long nails (or other hard objects) are hammered, screwed, or inserted into standing trees to prevent them from being cut. The idea is that the activists who spike trees let the government agency or corporation involved in the spiked timber site know what they've done to the trees. Not wanting to destroy the expensive saws in their mills or put workers' lives at risk, the timber company will call off the sale. Tree spiking has worked -- I would guess that hundreds of acres of old growth forest is still standing thanks to tree spikers -- but it has also backfired. At least one company cut a spiked site and left the wood to rot out of spite, and it has created immense ill will in timber communities.

POV: What effect have the radical groups had on mainstream groups? What is the relationship between the two groups?

Scarce: I don't think there is a relationship, except from afar. The mainstream steadfastly ignores the radicals and the radicals criticize the mainstream for doing too little, being too concerned with organizational preservation, not using the power of numbers that they could bring to bear on issues, shying away from the big fights, and being more concerned about maintaining their status as Washington insiders than preserving wilderness and ensuring that soil, air, and water are safe.

For the last fifteen years, however, the split has been sharper than it was from 1980 to 1995, corresponding to the emergence of the Earth Liberation Front and other groups that split off around that same time. The ELF characterizes gas-guzzling vehicles, road construction, incursions into wilderness, and even subdivisions as violent acts that must be met with violence.
Arson set at Superior Lumber by the ELF

ELF Fire at Superior Lumber; Credit: Roy Milburn

ELF activists hope to derail development either directly or indirectly: directly by burning homes or ruining bulldozers, indirectly by raising the costs of business such as insurance and security. Either way, they identify economics as their enemy and their ally; they hate the capitalist system but try to use it to their advantage. If they can raise the cost of development enough through their destructive activities, they feel they can stop a given development and slow the rate of environmental destruction by slowing capitalism.

The ELF can point to a number of successes -- most only temporary, but successes from their point of view nonetheless. ELF arsonists have destroyed tens of millions of dollars of unfinished homes and buildings, including a ski resort at Vail, Colorado, and they have successfully attacked businesses ranging from major corporations' test plots and laboratories used in genetic engineering to Hummer dealerships.

But my personal view is that the ELF has done more harm than good. I am sympathetic to much of their view of the world, but their tactics are counterproductive and often extremely dangerous. The vast majority of the ELF's destructive efforts have been undone. Condominiums, subdivisions, and ski resorts have been rebuilt. Genetic experiments have been re-created. And new Hummers continued to roll off the line. So in some senses, the destruction has been done twice-over: twice the trees were cut for the 2 x 4s to build those burned buildings and twice the metals were mined for the SUVs.

The real harm, though, has been in the public's perception of the issues and in the loss of environmentalism's most committed activists to long prison terms. When I describe my research on radical environmentalists to new acquaintances, inevitably they say, "Oh, you mean you write about the eco-terrorists." There is no greater stigma in our society than that of "terrorist." No one listens to terrorists. Their arguments fall on deaf ears. They are imprisoned, and Daniel McGowan is, under extreme conditions reminiscent of the terrorism suspects at Guantanamo. So the ELF's penchant for destruction -- never mind that no human life has ever been lost as a result of their actions -- allows it to be painted as a terrorist group.

As for the effects of the radicals on the mainstream [movement], notwithstanding what I said earlier, at moments radicals and the mainstream have actually worked together. You won't get many Sierra Clubbers admitting it, but the mainstream's clout has been useful in taking advantage of some of the radicals' delaying or publicity-generating tactics. Probably the most notable of these moments of accidental cooperation was at Headwaters Forest, a California redwood grove where a 738-day tree sit (a form of civil disobedience when a tree is continuously occupied by activists) took place. It ended when Sierra Club brokered a deal between the timber company and state and federal representatives to purchase the area around the tree, and thousands more acres nearby, for a preserve.

So on occasion the two wings of the movement have worked together effectively. Most often, though, the mainstream steers clear of the radicals. The radicals never have had the numbers that would allow the mainstream to insist that they're the reasonable ones. Instead, right-wing politicians insist on labeling all environmentalists "radicals" -- an unintended consequence of the radicals' emergence.

POV: If a Tree Falls recalls the ELF action you mentioned earlier in which members burned down a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, in order to stop a planned expansion that some feared would threaten the lynx (an endangered species) habitat. This was an issue that local environmental groups had been fighting for some time, through letter writing campaigns, public hearings, lawsuits and other nonviolent means. The Colorado conservationists condemned the arson. Is that a typical reaction on the part of local activists when radical activists from elsewhere drop in and commit acts of eco-sabotage?

Scarce: I haven't studied that phenomenon very much, but I'll make a couple of observations. First, often no one is involved in an issue other than the ELF -- which is precisely the problem. The ELF shows up and goes nuclear, if you will. Rather than protest, rather than make an issue out of what troubles them, they make war. They don't educate. They don't try to create an informed public. ELF activists do nothing to create a broader movement and to develop a local, popular base for the issues that consume them. The issues are vital. The need for action is urgent. But for most people everything gets lost once destruction enters the picture. They shut down and focus only on the notion that someone out there is destroying property to make a point. It makes people wonder if they're going to be next. And without a popular movement, environmentalism cannot win its struggles.

Second, where local groups do exist, ELF action can cut both ways. Arguably, in Vail the controversy was past -- the resort was nearly complete when the ELF struck. Although controversy remained regarding further development in the Vail area, the ship had sailed for that resort. But in other cases the ELF steps into the middle of an issue that is being advocated for by local above-board environmentalists. One example is the destruction of radio transmitter towers by the ELF in Snohomish, Washington, in 2009. Nearby residents had fought against the towers for years, and some of them welcomed the towers' destruction. The towers were rebuilt a year later.

POV: The FBI calls ecoterrorism the United States' number one domestic terrorism threat. What effect has this had on radical environmentalists? Has it caused members to change their tactics?

Scarce: I don't know for sure. What's clear is that the current "green scare," as the FBI's investigations are known among environmentalists, includes investigations of dozens of radical environmental actions, all of which occurred years -- even a decade or more -- after the "Arizona Five" case. That case was a 1989 FBI sting in which Dave Foreman and four others were nabbed. Foreman's Ecodefense included entire sections on "safety," yet he was convicted of a felony. So it appears that activists either will not learn from the past or are so focused on the need for action that they treat personal safety and freedom as a secondary concern.

Activists of all stripes pay a high price for what they do. Extensive involvement in even the most pacific movement takes time and tremendous devotion. In the process, friendships, work, family, and more may be sacrificed for the cause. When the movement involves things like civil disobedience, the price goes up; one of my students was arrested after a month-long tree sit last summer -- she was fighting mountaintop removal by a coal company in West Virginia and is looking at an 18-month jail sentence essentially for trespassing!

My point is, where there is enough commitment there is no stopping activists from pursuing their struggle. The flip side is that the oppression of dissent is in the interests of powerful corporations that depend on destroying the planet, and they are supported by law enforcement. And so a conflict is inevitable. Will the conflict result in illumination and broader social activism? Probably only if that conflict has profound moral overtones -- overtones that are lost once property destruction enters the picture.

Eco-Warriors book cover

Rik Scarce is the author of "Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement" and a professor of sociology at Skidmore College in New York.