The term may not be suitable for describing radical environmentalists, academics argue
Features / August 9, 2019
It’s no secret that pollution and environmental contamination is changing the planet. Industry pollutes the environment, and each day that goes by, machines release toxins like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into breathable air. Slaughterhouses can contribute to pollution immensely through irresponsible wastewater disposal, which can leak manure, grease, and fat into rivers and oceans. In these ways and others, the operation of corporate enterprises causes millions of dollars worth of environmental damage that directly affects people.
In Canada, disasters like the Mount Polley mine tailings pond collapse have long-lasting consequences for the ecosystems they affect. The collapse happened on Aug. 4, 2014 and sent 25 million litres of contaminated sludge and water into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and Quesnel Lake. These bodies provide drinking water to local residents, and are used by sockeye salmon as a spawning area.
Even with the millions of dollars put into cleaning Polley Lake, the damages remain extensive to this day.
Instances like these might inspire environmentalists to take direct action. For some, that action may be radical, or even violent.
One example is the case of a Canadian, Rebecca Rubin. In 2013, Rubin pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and arson in the U.S. laid against her for crimes she committed as a member of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. Consequently, she was widely deemed an eco-terrorist.
Jeffrey Shantz, a criminology instructor at KPU who has written extensively about environmental politics and has been involved in ecological movements, says that the origin of the term terrorism comes from the Terror period during the French revolution, when it was used to refer to actions by the state against civilians.
“Terrorism is a government body inflicting violence or some kind of harm on the civilian population as a means of keeping them in their place or regulating them, or keeping control over them,” says Shantz.
Because of this, and because terrorism is usually directed at a wider public population rather than a small group, he doesn’t believe the term eco-terrorism should be used to describe organizations like the Animal Liberation Front, which have specific isolated targets like testing labs or factory farms.
“The people who are resisting are not engaged in terrorism. They are engaged in acts of property destruction. They are engaged in acts of sabotage. They are engaged in acts of civil disobedience. They are engaged in acts of protest. They might be engaged in strikes or blockades or things like that,” he says. “Can we define those [acts] as terrorism? No. They’re defence of the environment.”
Activists work to try and save the planet from contamination and rescue animals from inhumane living conditions, but if they commit crimes, resort to violence, or attack places that harm the environment or its wildlife, they might earn the title of “eco-terrorist.”
An article by The Washington Post called “Ecoterrorism: threat or political ploy?” mentioned that “a recent publication shows that radical environmentalists and animal rights activists have been responsible for 1,069 criminal acts in the United States between 1970 and 2007.”
“The authors categorize three actions as assassinations (0.3 per cent), 44 as armed assaults (4.1 per cent), 55 as bombings/explosions (5.1 per cent), 933 as facility attacks (87.3 per cent), 30 as unarmed assaults (2.8 per cent) and four as unknown (0.4 per cent).”
The RCMP lists the Earth Liberation Front as the most prominent ecological group in Canada which “uses radical means to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment.” In some cases, this includes taking “direct action” like vandalising or destroying property.
In Canada, instances of eco-terrorism as defined by the RCMP are rare. In 2008 and 2009, there were four bombings that targeted gas pipelines in the Dawson Creek area which police suspect was motivated by locals wanting to protect the environment.
A Foreign Policy magazine article titled “The Next Wave of Extremists Will Be Green” mentions that, in 2001, the Earth Liberation Front was listed by the FBI as the top domestic terrorist threat to the U.S.
The article states that “academics have estimated that ‘REAR’ (Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights) cells can be found in at least 25 countries and were responsible for more than 1,000 criminal acts between 1970 and 2007 in the United States alone—mostly vandalism and attacks on animal testing facilities.” Notably, these are only estimates.
Charles Quist-Adade, an instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who taught a course on terrorism, globalization, and social justice, says that, “for an act or an action to be called a terrorist act, it must have several components.”
“That is causing harm, causing death, and also destroying property. Plus, of course, inciting fear. That is what terrorism aims to do,” he explains.
“But I don’t think that protecting against the ravages of the environment by corporations and government should qualify, or should be termed terrorism, per se. Maybe another term could be coined.”
In the U.S., during a 2004 Senate hearing titled “Animal Rights: Activism Vs Criminality,” Attorney Mcgregor W. Scott stated that “animal terrorists are increasingly targeting not only animal enterprises themselves, such as research facilities and companies that engage in animal testing, but also anyone who is believed to be engaged in the provision of services to such animal enterprises.”
“Some people may call these acts terrorist, others may see these acts as simply helping to protect our endangered species and our environment,” says Adade. “One man’s terrorist is another’s person liberator.”
A 2015 article by The Guardian titled “Canadian mounties’ secret memo casts doubt on climate change threat” states that a leaked RCMP memo showed that the organisation “repeatedly departs from the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of scientists—and the majority of elected leaders in the international arena—that climate change is a growing threat to global security.”
“Instead, the memo on the ‘anti-Canada petroleum movement’ presents continued expansion of oil and gas production as an inevitability, and repeatedly casts doubt on the causes and consequences of climate change,” it reads.
Since then, the RCMP has developed a “Departmental Sustainable Development Strategy” where they commit to being more environmentally-conscious through things like procuring hybrid vehicles and setting targets to “reduce the environmental impact on specific goods or services.”
Richard Macmillan, KPU student and organizer of the animal rights group Let’s Be Compassionate, feels that the term “eco-terrorism” should be used to describe those contributing to climate change—as the RCMP is accused of doing in the past—rather than those trying to address it.
“It’s amazing how many people really buy into [the idea that] we need to find this new market for oil and it will help pay for things, but I mean, this is such short-term thinking, people are going to look back on this and think that’s eco-terrorism,” says Macmillan. “Pipeline spills, climate damage—that, to me, is eco-terrorism.”