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The Next Wave of Extremists Will Be Green
Militant environmentalism is coming. And we aren’t ready for it.
If military strategists are always fighting the last war, the same is true of those who work on countering radicalization. In 2001, Western intelligence services, mostly focused on localized terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army and ETA, were stunned by al Qaeda. Come 2011, they were then blindsided by Anders Behring Breivik and the growth in far-right extremism. By the mid-2010s, the Islamist threat had evolved into the Islamic State — and they were slow to spot that, too.
Today, we are about to make the same mistake. We will not easily forgive ourselves if our attention is exclusively occupied by the Islamic State or the far-right when the coming wave of environmental radicalization hits.
There’s nothing new about radical environmentalism. In 2001, the Earth Liberation Front — a militant, violent environmentalist group — was described by the FBI as one of the top domestic terrorist threats. Academics have estimated that “REAR” (Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights) cells can be found in at least 25 countries and were responsible for more than 1,000 criminal acts between 1970 and 2007 in the United States alone — mostly vandalism and attacks on animal testing facilities. Over the last 30 years, there have been periodic fears about new waves of “eco-terrorism,” which have never quite materialized.
But, until recently, radical environmentalism had been a victim of its own success. Green ideas went mainstream years ago. Most major political parties in Western democracies (Donald Trump and the Republican Party notwithstanding) now accept the facts of climate change and have promised to respond. Environmentalism has also become part of the broader anti-capitalism movement, which is — mostly — characterized by a commitment to nonviolence and bottom-up change. As a result, climate activism that crosses from peaceful protests, like marching in the streets, to civil disobedience — shutting down mines or monkey-wrenching machinery — remains stubbornly small. There are no exact figures, but people on the inside have told me that, in the U.K. at least, it’s just a few hundred hardcore activists, and a few thousand in the United States.
There are clues, however, that this may be about to change. The necessary conditions for the radicalization of climate activism are all in place. Some groups are already showing signs of making the transition. And when they do, we may be ill-equipped for handling these new green hard-liners.
Radicals of all types share certain characteristics. According to Peter Neumann, the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) and author of Der Terror ist unter uns (“The Terror Is Among Us”), people who become radicalized typically have a “sense of grievance” — sometimes real, sometimes perceived — and a belief that legitimate channels for redress are shut off, inaccessible, or ineffective. There is also usually a social element, in the form of a charismatic preacher or ideology, that spurs people to seek emotional fulfillment through otherwise forbidden methods for redemption.
Climate activists certainly have a central grievance — a catastrophic, existential grievance that is supported by scientific research. Based on current projections, by the end of this century, large swaths of the globe will become uninhabitable, and extreme weather will be commonplace, as will food shortages and drought. By 2050, as many as 250 million people could be climate change refugees. This is the mother of all grievances, and it is measurably getting worse.
And formal, peaceful political activism — that all-important route to redress — isn’t working. True, there have been some successes. The renewable energy industry is surging. Anti-capitalist and pro-environmental political movements are on the rise (see: Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and politicians like Beppe Grillo, who’ve all made climate change a major priority). But from the perspective of environmentalists, there are mounting reasons to doubt the political prospects for saving the planet. By 2040, the amount of energy required to power the world will likely be around 50 percent higher than it was in 2012. Coal demand is expected to grow 0.6 percent every year between now and then. Last year was especially bad: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above 400 parts per million (the first time in millions of years); meanwhile, the Living Planet Index projected that the Earth could lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. No serious activist thinks the Paris climate accords, feted by governments, are enough — and that was before Trump pulled out of them.
The signs of growing radicalism in green circles are already there, if you know where to look. While researching for my recent book, Radicals Chasing Utopia, I spent time with Earth First!, a hard-line environmentalist group founded in the southwestern United States but with cells all over the world. It is enjoying a resurgence precisely because of its promises of “no compromise in defense of Mother Earth.” Longtime members told me that they’ve never seen this level of interest or frustration; it was clear from my time with them that, along with hardened old-timers, Earth First! has attracted loads of young people getting involved for the first time, all of whom had a sense that something needed to be done and fast.
Visit any of the environmentalist websites or blogs and you’ll find an endless run of protests, demos, marches, and planned civil disobedience. Something is stirring. According to a representative I recently spoke to from Friends of the Earth, an environmentalist group with chapters across the world, local anti-fracking groups have grown faster than anything he has ever witnessed in the green movement. Had it not been for the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris just weeks before the climate accord meetings in November 2015, and the subsequent state of emergency, the demonstrations there would likely have been the biggest environmental protests ever. I interviewed several of the people involved at the time: There had been months of planning, hundreds of organizers dotted across the city, and a real sense of momentum. That same year, German climate change activists founded Ende Gelände (“Here and No Further”), an alliance specifically devoted to acts of civil disobedience against fossil fuels. In 2015, around 1,500 of these very determined and highly organized protesters temporarily shut down one of Europe’s largest coal mines by climbing into it. Last year, double that number of protesters did the same. And this month Ende Gelände organized an estimated 6,000 protestors into an 11-day effort to halt production in the heart of German coal country.
The same obstinate determination was visible in the Standing Rock protesters, who tried to prevent the building of the Dakota Access pipeline in the northern United States. Between August 2016 and this February, 761 arrests were made there. Of course that partly reflects police aggression and heavy-handedness, but it also signals protesters’ newfound toughness and refusal to stand down. Authorities have made clear that they’re worried: A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of attacks from eco-terrorists who “believe violence is justified” to the planned Diamond Pipeline, which will run from Oklahoma to Tennessee (although it noted they have no current intelligence suggesting any attack has been planned).*
It’s not just in Western developed economies that environmental radicalism is taking hold. One marked development of the past few years is the growth of activists in the developing world taking on a far more prominent leadership role. Rather than environmentalism being a rich Westerners’ pastime, the mantle is passing to the communities and people in countries where the damage wrought by climate change is evident today, not a hypothetical scenario 50 years off. They will be more willing — or desperate — to use more extreme measures. In Brazil, for example, the Sociedade Secreta Silvestre organization detonated a pressure cooker packed with metal outside a shopping mall in Brasília and threatened attacks on the Olympics in 2016.
It’s not just on the streets, either. You can see it in the growth of the resistance literature genre. The author Naomi Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough, offers an optimistic analysis of how politics could fix the world’s problems — although she stresses that time is running out. And when time runs out, as I’m afraid it will, books like Deep Green Resistance — a sort of how-to guide for radical environmentalists — urge abandoning ineffective peaceful routes and hint darkly that industrial sabotage is the only avenue left open. (This is all without even mentioning the broader anti-capitalist movement, of which environmentalism is increasingly a part. At the last G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, 76 police officers were injured in violent clashes with protesters.)
Roger Hallam, a specialist in collective action theory — and a climate change activist — told me recently that he’s surprised there hasn’t yet been more militant environmentalism. But that, he says, is partly because people don’t get mobilized by theory or science alone. Decades of studies on social movement have found that humans are more likely to be stirred by signal moments than abstract ideas or data. “At some point in the next five years,” Hallam told me, “there will be a catastrophic climatic event. And suddenly the whole movement will take off.” Until then, he reckons, climate activism might go through phases of offshooting, which is something seen in other radical groups: A smallish group decides to pursue a more militant line and splits off from the wider movement. This smaller group then provides the emotional fulfilment and social purpose that can act as a spur to action. This, in turn, widens the gap between militant and peaceful branches, which, in a self-perpetuating loop, makes the offshoot even more radical, tightknit, and determined.
It’s not clear how society ought to respond to a new wave of environmental extremism. So far, previous waves of extremism have encouraged us to believe that radicals and extremists are always misled, confused, irrational, manipulated, or evil — not rational thinkers who have made their decisions based on a combination of scientific data and utilitarian philosophy. The tools we’ve developed to counter radicalization are based on these assumptions. Since 9/11, governments have invested in attempts to stop violent, extreme, or illiberal ideas from spreading by spotting people at risk of becoming radicalized and intervening early. The theory is that a dangerous reading of the Quran can be corrected with the help of a scholar or positive “countermessaging”; or a sense of frustration about immigration can be straightened out with classes in multiculturalism or even help getting a job.
I recently visited a group of specialists who work on Islamist and far-right deradicalization and asked them how they would go about preventing green radicalization. Perhaps asking Greenpeace managers to deradicalize militant monkey-wrenchers? Or infiltrating Friends of the Earth to find recruiters? Maybe building a new model to spot signs of growing radicalization — university courses in the humanities, involvement in left-wing student groups, coupled with a growing interest in recycling — that could help the police spot early warning signs? No one was quite sure, but none of these prescriptions felt right.
For now, it seems unlikely that a rise in green militancy would mean murdering innocent civilians. According to one academic study, less than 10 percent of recent REAR criminal cases were of a “terrorist” nature (i.e., targeting individuals with violence, which is typically a key component of terrorism). It’s mostly property damage, vandalism, or civil disobedience for the time being, though it’s very difficult to know precisely how things could unfold if environmentalists continue to encounter failure.
Predicting the future is always difficult, and the particulars of this analysis could be wrong. But it’s worth thinking about radical environmentalism and how to handle it regardless. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the police, government, media, and counterterrorism industry, still fighting the last war, will treat radical environmental activists as domestic terrorists, placing saboteurs of factories in the same camp as millenarian death cults and violent white supremacists. In addition to being an extremely misleading comparison, there will be heavy surveillance, overpolicing, and awkward, ham-fisted efforts at “deradicalization.” Hints of it were seen at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, when, following violent protest, the German justice minister promised more money to prevent left-wing extremism and there were calls to create an “extremism database.” Police in the U.K. have already spent a small fortune infiltrating and spying on environmental activists. The result? When their efforts at surveillance were exposed, it led to a hardening of views among those being watched. Predictably enough, FBI counterterrorism specialists were involved in the investigation of the Standing Rock protesters.
The definition of terrorism — which is highly disputed and varies country to country — matters, and it is usually a political question. I asked Neumann, the ICSR director, if a green activist committing industrial sabotage without human casualties in order to change government policy to improve the sustainability of the planet was really “terrorism.” “That’s a tricky one,” he replied. And it is. But it’s also a question we may soon be forced to grapple with.
Image credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
* A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the Department of Homeland Security warned of the potential for “mass casualties” as a result of eco-terrorism; that warning referred to militia groups.