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Giving environmentalism a bad name

Environmentalist Attacks Hit Suburbs

The Earth Liberation Front, a movement that originated in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, has claimed responsibility for a string of arsons in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Detroit, San Diego and Philadelphia in the past 12 months. No one has been charged in any of the attacks.

The attacks, which included the costliest act of environmental sabotage in U.S. history, have targeted luxury homes and SUVs, the suburban status symbols that some environmentalists regard as despoilers of the Earth.

... The ELF operates in a series of anonymous cells and uses the Internet to communicate and broadcast its message. But it has little organization, no fees and no membership list, frustrating FBI efforts to penetrate the group.

ELF shouldn't need any denunciation from me, although I suppose they should be given credit for not killing anyone yet. I suspect that their success in destroying only property is due to the small size of the organization -- the only people that go through with it are the really dedicated ones. If they were to succeed in their goal of inspiring copycat crimes, they might start attracting less disciplined people, who would start making mistakes.

This column makes what should be a fairly obvious point: eco-terrorism won't work. It's not operating on a big enough scale to really threaten the capitalist system (which just manufactures another SUV to replace every one ELF destroys). Moreover, they aren't building anything in the way of an alternative system that could take over from capitalism. At best they're using the Mr. Jordan strategy -- punish non-ELFers until we come up with a less environmentally damaging economic system.

But I think looking at the ELF in a tactical/strategic frame is too narrow. Certainly they speak in such language. But I think there's a strong expressive content as well. While arson may not bring down capitalism, it serves as notice that the arsonist is fed up with the system. An ELFer is refusing to condone, through the implicit compromise of pragmatic action, capitalism. Terrorism is often the weapon of the desperate, signalling their objection to a system they can't change.

On another note, perhaps ELF would be good practice for our government's efforts against al-Qaida (since, being here at home, it doesn't involve all those pesky foreign governments or those godless gay translators). Then again, if the government fights ELF the way it fights al-Qaida, we'll have the FBI attacking the offices of the Sierra Club, since they're both environmentalist and the Sierra Club is an easier target (with its offices and staff and all).


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