Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar (Instructor: Peter A. Bowler)
University of California, Irvine, March 1998 

Ecotage: A Practical or Punishable Means of Environmental Activism?

By: Steve Jones, 3/15/97

In recent decades, as environmental loss has grown as fast as our population, hundreds of plans, programs, groups and organizations have been established in order to uncover and solve the causes of world-wide environmental destruction. Many of these programs are initiated and funded by federal, state and local government and are mainly targeted at general problems and result in minimal success. Other groups have been formed by private parties who usually hold more compassion and concern for the causes they are working for. However, these organizations are easily hindered by political resistance and result in equally discouraging results. Of course, there have been many instances in which environmental groups have attained victory through political debates and litigation; yet the amount of failed attempts far outweighs the victories. Political debating is incredibly difficult due to the power and financial support given to politicians by special interest groups. However, there is one other form of activism which has had an incredible success rate, at least in gaining attention and forcing their voices to be heard.

This form of activism, commonly referred to as ecotage, focuses precisely on the activities of companies and industries which seriously damage the environment. These actions are never aimed at harming individuals, while private property is for the destroying. One common act of ecotage is the driving of long metal spikes vertically through the base of trees. Subsequently, as the logger attempts to saw the 'spiked' tree, the chain on the saw snaps, thus delaying the murder of the tree as well as causing a financial burden for the individual or company. Other activities involve ruining bulldozers by adding sand or similar abrasives to the gasoline, which results in seized bulldozer engines. In times of increased urgency for the protection of our remaining ecosystems, organizations such as Greenpeace and Earth First! have proven their ability to be effective and have their voices heard regarding the permanent preservation of our dwindling environment.

While Greenpeace has been the traditional radical environmentalist group of the 70's and 80's, modern, revolutionary type activists feel the 'peace' is now a higher priority than the 'green'. Earth First!, started by Dave Forman, has become the front-runner in civil disobedience and direct, non-violent environmental activism. Their principles are simple, "It is a belief in biocentrism, or Deep Ecology, and a practice of putting our beliefs into action" (Unclaimed, 1997 [see references]). Earth First! feels no regard for the well-being of anyone or thing except the environment and its natural inhabitants, thus the name Earth First!. The prioritization of the Earth's condition over all other matters is the main driving force behind Earth First! activism. A recent Earth First! article stated,"Earth First! is different from other environmental groups. We believe in using all of the tools in the tool box, ranging from grassroots organizing and litigation to civil disobedience and monkeywrenching" (Unclaimed, 1997). Fortunately for the environments' sake, Earth Firsters! are successful in achieving positive results through all of these actions. While violence can erupt as a result of this direct activism, it is rarely by the hands of the Earth Firsters!. They pride themselves in raising the power of the mind above the power of the fist in proving the activities of lumber and nuclear power companies to be inhumane and unacceptable.

One example of non-violent, direct activism took place in Tacoma, Washington at the front gates of the Macmillan-Bloedel's (Mac-Blo) cedar lumber distribution center. Reportedly, MacBlo is linked to some of the largest, most wasteful and environmentally incompassionate logging operations in British Colombia. Another EarthFirst! article stated,"They practice the harshest clearcutting techniques, employing automation so their labor costs are low. They make vast clearcuts and process ancient trees into pulp for telephone books and newspapers. They then flood the world market with this pulp so they can control the price. (Hemstreet, L., 1997)" In response to these unacceptable forresting practices, several members of Earth First! planned a protest which would involve the immobilization of their own bodies at the entrance gates of the lumber yard, preventing all employees from continuing work. This was done by placing 3" PVC tubing horizontally through a large wine barrel with a piece of rebar running vertically, through the center of the PVC. These drums are then filled with 500 lbs. of cement and allowed to dry for several days. On the morning of the protest, the barrels are driven to the site, where they are unloaded and placed across the road leaving no space large enough for a car or truck to pass through. Then, the brave, chosen individuals insert their arms in each end of the tube, which runs through the 500 lb. barrel, and finally handcuff themselves to the rebar which runs vertically through the barrel and PVC pipe. The final outcome of this protest is actually quite disturbing. After hours of failed efforts of undoing the cuffs, workers of the lumber yard and Tacoma police decided to tip the barrels over in order to force the activists to end the protest. Surprisingly, only a few injuries were sustained by the barrel occupants but the activists who tried to stop the barrel tipping received an onslaught of clubs and nightsticks to the head and body from the police officers. Once the police realized they couldn't beat everybody, they started with the arresting procedure. In the mean time, a local man with a sledge-hammer broke apart the cement, freeing the occupants. While everybody on the site was eventually arrested, one Earth Firster! managed to lock himself to the steering wheel of the Tacoma Police paddy wagon. While no rules, laws, or regulations were changed as a result of this protest, one can't deny that they forced the police and citizens of Tacoma to hear their voices.

Another very peculiar incident occurred in Columbus, Ohio during February of this year. This protest was in response to the proposed opening of 40 million acres of hardwood forest, currently within the boundaries of Wayne National Forest, to be strip mined. Earth First! researchers discovered the source of the orders to strip mine were given from the Regional Support Office of Strip Mining in Pittsburgh. As the carloads of Earth Firsters! arrived in squirrel and deer costumes, roughly 30 members of the press were waiting to greet them. The mission of the day was to take over the office, lock themselves in and refuse to come out until their demands were heard. One activist tells the story as such, "No cops were present, so we took it over with ease. Rifling through files, using the copy machine, 'borrowing' documents, banging on walls, beating up trash cans, using fax machines, ordering pizza, calling our relatives long distance...'Office of Rape and Scrape,' was how we answered the phone. (Mander, W., 1997)" Once the police arrived, 12 hours of the typical negotiations took place in which the Earth Firsters! refused all offers. Eventually the Earth Firsters! called Nancy Garrett of the Office of Strip Mining and read her their demands. She decided to ignore their demands and have them arrested. For some reason, the cops decided not to carry out the arrests and Nancy Garrett returned the call to the activists, and reached a compromise. As a result of this protest, Earth Firsters! were given, "a meeting, a public hearing, clarification of valid existing rights issues, and an investigation. We'd made all three of Pittsburgh's television network news channels, many papers, the Ohio AP wire, and someone said we were on National Public Radio" (Mander W., 1997). This protest was obviously a success and it only took 12 hours. When compared to month long political debates and lengthy voting procedures, this form of activism is about as efficient as one can get.

In the future, many organizations and movements such as Earth First! are going to become an integral force in the preservation and maintenance of the environment. As more people inhabit the Earth, the more opinions, policies, resistance and obstacles will have to be faced and overcome in order to achieve any sort of legitimate goal. However, these procedures are going to become, longer, more expensive, and difficult to achieve as time progresses. Therefore, independent groups and movements like Earth First! are going to be an integral component in the preservation and conservation of our remaining environment in the 21st century.

 

References

Hemstreet, L. 1997. MacBlo in Tacoma.
gopher://gopher.igc.apc.org/00/orgs/ef.journal/5.html.

Mander, W. 1997. "What Do You Mean You Won't Arrest Us?".
gopher://gopher.igc.apc.org/00/orgs/ef,journal/7.html.

Unclaimed. 1997. What is Earth First!? gopher://gopher.igc.apc.org/00/orgs/ef.journal/1.html.