Sònia Bravo Espinosa.


At times, disruptive and severe actions seem like the only alternative to restart a system that has apparently failed. Redefining it according to certain values has always been the main objective of social movements. However, following a democratic and long-lasting process can sometimes become frustrating and non-productive. Is this the only legitimate way to bring the change? Or, can the use of violence be justified in any way?

The environmental movement is a clear case that shows the two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, there’s the well-known -and majoritarian- pacific group that chases the ideals involving the respect of nature and the biodiversity though demonstrations, petitions and legal reports. And on the other hand, there’s a radicalized wing of the movement that has been controversially named eco-terrorism. It has been defined as “the nº 1 domestic terrorism threat” in the US by the FBI, and mostly because of its methods of action, which usually include violence in the forms of arson and vandalism (FBI 2002).

The subversive movement started in the 1970s with the foundation of Earth First! in the US. Soon, other notorious organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (EFF) emerged and spread easily around the globe (Horton 2017). The most intense period of action was consolidated between the 1990s and the 2000s. Nowadays, according to a study conducted in 2014, eco-terrorist groups can be found in at least 25 (mostly Western) countries (Hirsch-Hoefler and Mudde 2014).

The birth of eco-terrorism raised plenty questions in many respects: firstly, regarding its potential to flourish as a movement; secondly, about its impact in society and the system; and at last, if the latter would generate any benefit to the entire green movement.

Regarding the studies about social movements, their success can be measured according to four different theories. Following the relative deprivation approach presented in Della Porta’s book, “activists of radical organizations are dawn from social groups that feel frustrated because of the gap between their expectations and their capabilities”(Della Porta 2006, 6). Thus, it’s the disconnection between eco-terrorists’ ideals and the reality what leads them, almost automatically, towards collective action.

There are also external factors -called Political Opportunity Structure or POS- that allow the movement to move forward. Eco-terrorism doesn’t seem to take advantage of the changing factors described in this theory as much as it does with the stable ones. Although it had international repercussion -awakening many other subgroups of organizations such as ELF or ALF around the word-, they failed to create alliances with powerful groups due to their reputation. Nevertheless, another important issue the POS holds is that the use of violence and illegal methods (dirty war) can increase the chances for the movement to succeed, as well as the repression by the State.

Regarding this matter, experts haven’t reached an agreement yet. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to extract some conclusions. Some specialists such as Gamson and Button defend the potential benefits of the use of violence, even though they both add some conditions. Concerning Button’s thesis, the violent actions cannot be neither too frequent nor severe, in order not to represent any threat or to lose sympathizers (Giugni 1998, 376). Evidence shows that eco-terrorism wouldn’t even fulfill one of the many conditions presented by experts positioned in favor of the use of force.

Eco-terrorism is based on direct action, which usually occurs in the form of criminal activity. Their repertoire of action includes blockades, arson, vandalism, bombing and monkeywrenching -which means sabotaging-. They aim to end with any company or entity that destroys the environment, resulting in damages of millions of dollars (FBI 2002).

The amount of eco-terrorist attacks has also been objectively high -until 2006, where there was a massive arrest of activists. There was at least one assault per year in the US, and in the most intense years (1997-2005), between 5 and 20. Once more, it appears clearly why citizens feared them and demanded the protection from them.

The success of a movement can also be influenced by the resource mobilization. It’s essential to create an environment of cohesion inside the movement in order to persuade its objective more efficiently. However, the environmental movement already presents some fractures. Apart from the scission between the pacifist and eco-terrorist sections, within the same ecoterrorist collective there are also discrepancies related to activist actions. Not all the participants are willing go on with the same violent protests, which shows the fragility of the movement. A member of the ELF claimed that this was precisely the downfall of environmental activism: people become close-minded and think that they know what’s best (Curry 2011). The radicalization of the movement, apart from emphasizing the fracture, can also increase the costs of participation. However, becoming a member of an eco-terrorist organization is very simple. They are organized in “cells”, which have been created spontaneously in different regions and the ELF published a manual with tactical instructions so that anyone can cooperate.

Another fundamental part of the movement was the identity building. Eco-terrorists defend the same principles as ecologist activists. Anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism are also crucial to understand the eco-terrorist movement and their way of protesting. They sometimes also justify the use of violence by the argument of self-defense, which is also linked to ecocentrism and ecologist values.

Similarly, apart from the strained relationship that all the evidence gathered has, eco-terrorism has also had a positive and negative impact. This movement is achieving -at a rather slow pace- their two main objectives: the direct action against those who destroy the environment or biodiversity and simultaneously, trying to create a consciousness around that issue. However, their main accomplishment has been earning the name eco-terrorism. In a few years, they had forged a terrible reputation and, without a doubt, the public opinion has generally refused to support them. There’s still a debate surrounding the term eco-terrorism and whether their participants must be judged as terrorists or not.

In conclusion, the impact generated by eco-terrorism has been rather negative for the green movement, mainly because of the public opinion. It has even been used to discredit the entire movement. Ecoterrorism could be the solution for short-term problems, but it’s not likely to lead the whole society to radical change. It lacks the support of a wider range of political actors and citizens, who clearly don’t support their aggressive and disruptive methods. Despite the significance of the imminent environmental problem, it is the pacific fraction of the movement, in contrast, that has more potential to produce a long-term change and the capability to influence the public agenda.