Three years ago, in the early hours of the morning, Greenpeace activists invaded a CSIRO site near Canberra and destroyed a crop of genetically modified wheat. Claiming responsibility on their website, the protesters cited environmental and health risks associated with GM crops as a justification for their action.
The Greenpeace protesters committed an illegal act. They caused damage that CSIRO researchers regarded as serious. But should their action be regarded as terrorism? The Commonwealth Criminal Code would allow it to be classified in this way. Terrorism, according to Australian law, is an act done with the intention of advancing a political, ideological or religious cause that results in serious harm to people or property.
Eco-terrorism has become a new category of crime. Back in 2004 the deputy assistant director of the FBI called it a serious domestic threat. The eco-terrorists he had in mind were animal rights activists who destroy equipment in labs that experiment on animals, environmentalists who spike trees in logging areas or damage logging equipment, set fire to Humbers in car dealer yards or cut the nets of dolphin fishers. The crop-destroying activities of Greenpeace would fit his list.
While the threat of eco-terrorism might make for a best-selling thriller, it is difficult not to notice the gap between these imagined acts of eco-terrorism and actual protest actions of environmentalists and animal rights activists. It is also hard not to notice important differences between acts of terrorism like the destruction of the Twin Towers, putting bombs in the London underground or at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, and the actions of Greenpeace, or of any of the activities cited by the FBI.
For one thing, as even the FBI admitted, no-one had been killed by animal rights or environmental protests. Indeed, environmental protesters routinely make an effort to avoid killing or harming people.
Tree spiking — which involves hammering a metal rod, nail or other material into a tree trunk and makes the tree less valuable — was advocated in the 1980s by an American group called Earth First! as a last ditch attempt to discourage logging in wilderness areas. When a timber worker was injured by a spike, Dave Foreman, one of the founders of the group, recommended that spiking be discontinued. Those who continued to spike trees posted warnings.
Environmentalists and animal rights activists have good reason to avoid acts that physically harm individuals. For one thing, they come mostly from the ranks of the well-educated middle class. They regard themselves as morally responsible individuals and good citizens. Killing the innocent, or even the not-so-innocent, is not something they would find easy to square with their conscience.
Moreover, they know that the only effective way to stop the activities they oppose is through gaining popular support. Their acts are symbolic — a way of drawing attention to things that they regard as seriously wrong. Killing or harming people is not a good way of gaining support for a cause.
Ten years after the FBI report, the serious threat it warned against has not materialised. Aside from the murders committed by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whose opposition to industrial civilisation is sometimes cited as a reason for describing him as an eco-terrorist, no deaths can yet be attributed to the actions of environmentalists or defenders of animal rights. Indeed environmentalists themselves are much more likely to be subjected to violence.
So does destroying crops and equipment, spiking trees and freeing lab animals really count as terrorism? It is worthwhile making a distinction (which the Australian law unfortunately does not) between destroying property that belongs to the perpetrators of an act that protestors regard as wrong (like the lab equipment of animal experimenters) and destroying the property of people who have nothing directly to do with the wrong. The second is a better candidate for the label of terrorism.
When the Nazis destroyed Jewish property on Kristallnacht, when religious fanatics destroy the temples, mosques or churches of those they despise, they are not merely harming the innocent; they are also expressing a hateful attitude toward people of a particular nationality, ethnicity or religion. It is the threat embodied in this expression of hatred, more than actual damage to property, that is terrorising.
When compared to true acts of terror, the deeds of environmentalists and animal rights activists simply don’t measure up. Using this label for actions that in early times would have been called sabotage or vandalism is a demonstration of the way "terrorism" has expanded its meaning to include almost any act of protest that involves breaking the law, and in recent times some that don’t.
When people marched in Brisbane last month to protest against threats to the barrier reef, Australian journalist Judith Sloan branded their peaceful demonstration as "eco-terrorism".
Will Potter, who is speaking in Australia this month on behalf of animal rights group Voiceless, argues that "green has become the new red". He believes labelling environmentalists as terrorists is similar to the way that the communist scare was used in the McCarthy era to discourage any kind of leftwing protest.
His argument is borne out by attempts to discredit environmentalists through fabricated threats of eco-terrorism. Before the 1993 Tasmanian election when it looked like the Greens might hold the balance of power in the Upper House, a device resembling a bomb was planted on a railway track near a timber yard. The Premier and the media jumped to the conclusion that this was the work of radical environmentalists. Further investigation revealed it as a hoax (the "bomb" was incapable of exploding) and according to a police report released through Freedom of Information, it may have been planted by loggers with the aim of discrediting environmentalism.
Eco-terrorism has also spawned an academic literature that attempts to explain why the philosophy of radical environmentalists makes them into a serious threat. Some environmentalists, like Earth First!’s founder Foreman, describe themselves as "deep ecologists". They believe that all forms of life have value in their own right and that humans should regard themselves as participants in the web of life, not the masters of nature.
From their point of view, human encroachment on the habitats of other living things is immoral and this motivates their defence of wilderness. Ingrid Newkirk, one of the founders of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, compares humans to a cancer.
Not all environmentalists are deep ecologists, but it is absurd to suggest people who question an ethic that gives humans the right to dominate other living things are anti-human. Those who make this assumption about radical environmentalists are wrongly supposing that a philosophy that values all living things gives its followers a licence to treat humans as badly as we now treat non-human creatures.
When Newkirk compared humans to cancerous growth, she was making a point that many others have made. David Attenborough, the British naturalist, recently described humans as "a plague on the earth". He was repeating what HRH Prince Charles said some years ago. Neither of these men are likely to be branded terrorists by the FBI anytime soon.
What Attenborough implied about the damage that humans are doing to our planet is a truth all of us know. We know we are destroying ecosystems, pushing animal species to extinction and interfering with the composition of the atmosphere. It is not necessary to be a radical environmentalist to believe that we are doing wrong.
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