Is there such a thing as eco terrorism?
In the Icelandic film “Woman at war” (2018) we get to follow Halla, a woman that outwards seems to be living a quiet life, but it turns out to be only a facade, as she is hiding her other identity, that of a passionate environmental activist, or an eco terrorist. Known to others only by her alias “The Woman of the Mountain” Halla secretly wages a one-woman-war on the local aluminum industry. The director of the movie Benedikt Erlingsson cites real-life environmentalists such as Berta Cáceres and Yolanda Maturana as inspirational figures, to the main character Halla. Cáceres was a member of the Lenca indigenous community, and the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, an organization fighting for the rights of indigenous people by drawing attention to the dangers facing them by increasing illegal logging and mining concessions. Maturana was a Colombian social and environmental leader known for her work denouncing illegal mining and pollution of water sources. Neither of these women are alive today.
The topic of eco terrorism is brought up also in the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinsons book “Ministry for the future” (2020). But here the topic is not at the center of the plot, instead the sabotage to airplanes and the sinking of cargo ships, is mentioned casually as news commentary, sometimes in conversations between characters. In Robinsons speculative version of our future, eco terrorism has become mainstream, a very common type of expression of resistance. So where is eco terrorism at today?
Eco terrorism as a term was first introduced by Ron Arnold in a 1983 article, where it was defined as “a crime committed to save nature”. The term then became increasingly popular during the 90’s with the increased activity of groups like Earth Liberation Front (ELF). In 2003 the FBI defined “ecoterrorism” as “the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons”. Still today the definition of the term is debated as it changes depending on the stance of the person and the context in which it is used. Much of the criticism also revolves around whether it is ecoterrorism or rather environmental radicalism.
In 2012, the FBI stated that ecoterrorist activists perpetrated more “terrorist” actions on U.S. soil than all other associated groups. And that these actions have led to around “300 million dollars in property damage” between 2003 and 2008. Today it is difficult to be precise about the number of eco-terrorism incidents because so little research within the field of terrorism is conducted on this particular type. Also eco terrorism events fall outside of the categorisations of the 2020 Global Terrorism Index. Still there are some indications eco terrorism might be on the rise. In 2021 The Hill reported that the FBI was investigating 41 incidences of eco-terrorism in Washington state alone, and later that year 53 activists from Insulate Britain were arrested while attempting to block the London Orbital Motorway.
In 2020 a paper published in the Journal of Strategic Security explored a scenario based on the premise that eco terrorism might be on the rise. In their scenario eco-terrorists would likely start with industrial sabotage, or “ecotage” to then expand to fossil fuel plants, airports and container ships. Still their goal would always be to inflict injury on infrastructure, not humans. If a development like this will play out, only time will tell. But the definition and status of eco terrorism is also connected to the public support, and whether if the public endorses the group’s goals or is repulsed by its tactics. Making it tightly connected to the general public’s outlook on climate change.
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