Derik Jensen, an American ecophilosopher asserts, “Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency... To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it.” Essentially, this means that by giving up hope, we are motivated to accept our role in causing climate change. In accepting our responsibility, we can take direct action. For example, this may take the form of radical environmentalist groups participating in a movement referred to as ecotage to stop climate change. This term is composed of the words “economic sabotage,” which refers to the destruction of “inanimate objects thought to be complicit in environmental devastation”. However, ecotage has been intimately tied to terrorism under the broad term “eco-terrorism,” wherein members of radical environmental organizations seek to achieve political goals through instilling terror by threatening violence against people.
When labeling individuals who commit ecotage to halt and dissent against climate change activities as terrorists, Steve Vanderheiden, a professor of political science at who specializes in normative political theory and environmental politics, states that the definition of terrorism strives for an explicit rhetorical purpose. To be a terrorist implies one has a claim for their aggressive pursuit that is unconstrained by the military, law, or State. Such a close association between ecotage and terrorism has conflated environmental dissent with genuinely harmful moral and ethical corruption.
However, this is not to say that ecotage is entirely peaceful or harmless. For example, in 2001, the FBI declared the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an organization that carries out attacks on those accused of inflicting damage upon the Earth through economic damage, was the United States’ leading domestic terrorist threat. ELF brought on their infamy through acts of arson and property damage that have caused environmental harm and perpetuated climate change. This has resulted in an estimated $100 million in damage. However, ELF claims they have not intentionally inflicted injury and that their aim is to impose economic harm to environmental offenders “to remove the profit motive from killing the earth and all life on it.”
Nonetheless, ELF’s tactics of intentional destruction of property do constitute a violation of rights – although this does not mean such actions are related to terrorism. As a movement, ecotage can encourage widespread political mobilization to halt and raise awareness about climate change. This may appeal to the larger community’s notion of justice, which can create sufficient pressure to force legislative change and regulation around fossil fuel use.
However, the effectiveness of this method is dubious. Vanderheiden warns that such eco-radicals motivated to action by extremist groups, like ELF, are “unlikely by themselves to make for successful political strategy” because mainstream climate activists may be appalled by its lawlessness and audacious criminal acts. Additionally, ecotage may not serve as a public check against injustice, but rather crumbling into pandemonium. This means that ecotage as a form to protest climate change is unrestrainable by the public’s sense of justice because the dissonant morality of the community and ecotage protestors are irrelevant to the protest itself.
Thus, to justify acts of ecotage, Vanderheiden asserts that ecotage is not permissible if other avenues of change have not been attempted. This is because ecotage undermines negotiations and alienates legislatures from enacting change. By extension, ecotage cannot enact violence against people. To prevent such harm, there must be sufficient publicized warnings about the potential harm of dissident actions so that people are aware of the consequences of engaging in behaviors perpetuating climate change.
Ultimately, Vanderheiden argues there are few cases in which ecotage is justified. For ecotage to occur, it must meet certain external conditions. Firstly, the environmental harm must be unlawful, such as drilling for oil on protected land to burn as fossil fuels. Additionally, elected officials with the capacity to enforce these laws must be unwilling or unable to do so. For example, politicians and enforcement agencies may refuse to enforce laws against the burning of fossil fuels. The injustice must also be permanent and irreversible, such as burning fossil fuels that damage the global climate will be irreversible for many of us within our limited lifetimes and contemporary technological restrictions. Legal means must have also been attempted and unsuccessful, as well as the general community remaining apathetic and unresponsive. But under no circumstances may people be physically harmed.
Ultimately, ecotage as a form of dissent against climate change is illegal. But perceived “terrorist” groups, like ELF, raise questions regarding the morality and ethics of economic sabotage. This leaves the question as to whether ecotage can be a defensible tactic of political dissent against climate change inaction.
Vanderheiden argues that ecotage can be justified and used as a form of political dissent under very rigid rules. The burden of proof must be put onto protestors seeking to employ ecotage in a way to address and express grievances with institutions enabling climate change. It is essential to first attempt social change through legal channels and negotiations, then through civil disobedience. However, as Vanderheiden describes, immediately labeling ecotage as terrorism and inherently ethically corrupt builds barriers to a potentially defensible avenue of social change. Therefore, ecotage serves as a warning regarding the radicalization of people when no action is taken by lawmakers against global warming and its irreversible effects on the climate.