The corporate-engineered backlash against environmentalists in the late 20th century speaks to the need for left-liberal unity against state infiltration.
It’s an exciting time to be in the climate justice movement. After years of toiling in obscurity, those raising the alarm on climate change are enjoying near-unprecedented levels of interest and popular support. Young people are storming senators’ offices and planning mass walkouts over climate change. Meanwhile, the pipeline boom exemplified by Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline has spawned a whole new wave of direct action encompassing the Valve Turners and the principled, sustained action of indigenous water protectors from Standing Rock to Bayou Bridge. Public support, once a painfully scarce resource for climate activists, is now pouring out of the public discourse with growing shades of urgency and rage.
With the environmental movement (again) approaching a critical mass, it’s worth thinking about our place in history. The story of climate activism is often told in fits and starts, leaping between disparate periods of time and schools of thought with little room for elaboration. But the histories of activism, climate change, imperialism, and late stage capitalism are not as vague or separate as they may seem. They are comprehensive and intertwining narratives, braided like so many threads around a core: the abuses of a state completely dependent on petroleum-based capitalism. Many climate activists, particularly the youth that will go on strike next week, are aware that environmental interests are a threat to capital. Understanding what this means in practice, and has meant historically, is essential to preparing for the coming storm of state and corporate retaliation.
In the years before climate change became known to the public, the fossil fuel industry was already facing down a series of grim predictions. The first was the specter of peak oil, first described in 1956, which foretold a point in time by which petroleum extraction would reach its highest point before entering into a terminal decline. Then, in 1959, physicist Edward Teller warned the American Petroleum Industry that carbon dioxide emissions could lead to significant climate change by 2000. Supply shocks the world over only served to accentuate the feeling that petroleum was painfully, catastrophically finite. The easily accessible oil fields of Texas, California, and the Midwest had depleted by the mid-20th century, leaving corporations like ExxonMobil and British Petroleum dependent on the whims of oil-rich nations. For the most profitable industry in history, the writing seemed to be on the wall.
Soon, the environmental movement also emerged to threaten capital. The 60s and 70s saw a groundswell of people concerned about the effect of industry on their landscapes and subsequent public pressure to limit the freedom of corporations to pollute our air and waterways. The birth of the environmental movement is often attributed to the public impact of books like Dr. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), but good timing played as much of a role as good writing. The excesses of industrial pollution had had Americans’ eyes burning for some time. In those years, smog lay in heavy layers over American cities, noxious blankets of nitrous and sulfuric oxides that were often lethal to the disabled and elderly. Rivers, choked with debris and coated with oil, went up in flames on a regular basis. Ensuing public outcry led to dreaded government regulation.
By the time Dr. Jim Hansen testified before Congress in 1988, connecting the dots between carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, and global warming, the fossil fuel industry had resolved to treat any attempt to limit the sovereign right of capitalists to profit--any pollution of the environment notwithstanding--as an existential threat. As documented by the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, an alliance of scientists, industry leaders, and policymakers emerged, which for decades spread disinformation on key environmental and health issues. Their performances on C-SPAN and cable news cast doubt on the legitimacy of science warning about the risks of acid rain, DDT, the existence of the ozone hole, and finally climate change. Soon, corporate talking points dominated the public conversation on environmental science. They would come to dominate public perceptions of environmental activists as well.
The 1990s were a pivotal decade for the fortunes of the environmental movement. In those years, the Pacific Northwest was in the midst of a row over its old-growth redwoods, caught in a battle between conservation and exploitation for timber. The so-called Timber Wars had been raging for a few years when in 1990, Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were bombed in Bari’s car on the road between Eureka and Santa Cruz. There was no shortage possible motive or suspects. Bari was a prolific leftist union organizer, well known for her efforts to resist logging through direct action. She was the recipient of multiple death threats stemming from various aspects of her activist work. On top of that, a botched firebombing attempt with a matching MO had been discovered in Sonoma County earlier that month. Nonetheless, the FBI and Oakland police wasted no time treating Bari and Cherney as suspects in their own car bombing. They were regarded by authorities as dangerous radicals transporting explosives, eco-terrorists victimized by their own carelessness. A federal civil lawsuit later found that Bari and Cherney’s civil rights had been violated during the investigation, but the truth came too late. The bombing only served to reinforce the public’s view of environmental activists as dangerous, irresponsible, and untrustworthy.
Demonized in the press and intimidated by the state, the environmental movement broke into pieces. Greenpeace and The Sierra Club abandoned their direct action counterparts in Earth First! and Redwood Summer, choosing instead to focus their efforts on Proposition 130, a ballot measure that restricted logging and set aside funds for forest preservation. The bombing of Judi Bari had done nothing to endear environmental activists in the eyes of the public. On the contrary, widespread depictions of Redwood Summer actually tilted public opinion in the opposite direction and Prop 130 was defeated.
Notable as it was, the debacle of the Judi Bari bombing was eclipsed in the public eye by the Animal Liberation Front, which embarked on an arson campaign targeting the American fur industry in the 1990s. Research labs and fur farms went up in flames throughout the United States, causing millions of dollars in damage. Operation Bite Back, as it was called by the ALF, culminated in the 1992 firebombing of a lab at Michigan State University. The on-campus mink farm was also vandalized and its minks released. Rod Coronado, a Pasqua Yaqui man with eco-anarchist leanings and ties to the ALF, was later arrested and imprisoned for his role as the mastermind of Bite Back. In all, the FBI made nine arrests and seventeen indictments.
The Timber Wars and Operation Bite Back made a lasting impact on the memories of the public and authorities alike. The eco-terrorist became a mainstay of pop culture. Then the September 11 attacks happened, and the word “terrorist” acquired weighty new significance in the public imagination. Once a sinister albeit vague bogeyman of the public, “terrorist” became shorthand for all threats to the soul of America almost overnight. In the 2000s, egged on by large corporations and public opinion, the state it dealt a devastating blow to the environmental movement. Operation Backfire was the formal name for the FBI’s search for eco-terrorists, a ruthless witch hunt that effectively criminalized many forms of environmental activism and direct action. In a deposition condemning the FBI’s overreach, the National Lawyers Guild wrote:
“In 2004, the federal government launched a wide-scale investigation of environmental and animal rights activists. It used paid informants and conducted warrantless spying on a range of organizations...The government is over-charging people with offenses that carry severe sanctions to force them to accept guilty pleas...or to intimidate them into turning state’s evidence. The National Lawyers Guild believes that the government is misusing destructive device charges and engaging in selection prosecution.”
Activists of all stripes got swept up in the Green Scare; no activist was nonviolent or unassuming enough to be safe. Coronado, who had just finished serving his sentence for the MSU firebombing, was targeted. So was Will Potter, a reporter who had gone leafleting for animal rights once— he was threatened with terrorism charges. Many of the people swept up in criminal charges named names and cut deals, accentuating the growing paranoia in the movement. And the specter of eco-terrorism helped lubricate the passage of countless ag-gag laws criminalizing the civilian reporting and criticism of the agriculture industry. The weight of government retaliation effectively gutted the environmental movement.
If you think this story is a ‘90s-’00s relic, however, you’d be wrong: more than fifteen later, eco-sabotage is still the FBI’s top domestic terrorism priority. This is even more astounding when we consider the fact that white supremacist terrorism—which claims lives on a daily basis in the form of mass shootings and other hate crimes—struggles to attract even a passing glance from federal authorities despite exploding in prominence over the 2010s. Eco-sabotage, on the other hand, has only ever caused one documented case of serious injury. Nonetheless, the FBI treats such tactics as terrorist activity, an attitude with devastating consequences for water protectors and others who use direct action to protect the environment. The pattern of criminalization shows no sign of stopping; indeed, Republican lawmakers are now pushing legislation that would identify resistance to fossil fuels as “attacks against the nation’s energy infrastructure”.
The crackdown faced by water protectors at Standing Rock and elsewhere has direct links to the movement-breaking activities of the Green Scare. Operation Backfire undeniably set the stage for the surveillance and harassment experienced by Standing Rock and Bayou Bridge water protectors. Sometimes, the history of climate change is depicted as one of capital subverting the state at the expense of the public. In reality, capital has weaponized the state, and in particular policing, as a method of movement fracture. The purge of the movement helped establish centrist “Big Green” groups as representatives of the movement rather than those with actual organizing experience or even coherent political agendas.
Environmental activists should recognize that they have chosen a formidable enemy. They are challenging not just pollution, but the economic interests at the heart of climate change who remain largely unmoved in the face of pressure to change. The capitalist machine chugs along, cannibalizing tar sands, shale oil, and entire countries in its struggle against the inevitable. Leftists must form a coherent strategy around this reality: we know from grim experience that the combined force of the state and capital can stop dissent in its tracks.
The antidote is solidarity between the liberal and leftist wings of our movement, one that shattered during the Green Scare. This breakdown was a strategic failure, if not a moral one. The cumulative history of Operation Backfire, COINTELPRO, and the Red Scare show us the underhanded tactics that the state use to divide movements by creating the perception of a cleavage between the “reasonable” and the “radical”. Activists of all stripes should prepare themselves for these tactics and always, always take the word of the state with a grain of salt. In the past, successful negotiators representing our interests within institutions understood that the radical wing of a movement is a bargaining chip, not a liability. Admittedly, there is no nonviolent protest without the perceived threat of violent agitation. But solidarity also involves a degree of true accountability: by embracing their more radical counterparts, climate activists working within the framework of constitutional democracy can prevent the former from resorting to more dangerous measures.
What leftists owe to each other—and what to do when people don’t pay up—is still very much up for debate, both in theory and practice. Sectarianism is endemic, of course, but more pernicious is the misogyny, settler-colonialism, racism, and just plain old abusive behavior that goes unchecked on a daily basis in liberal and radical circles alike. Aside from the emotional harm it inflicts on our peers, a lack of internal accountability has thrown movements into crisis. Rod Coronado, for example—an icon of direct action—infamously sexually assaulted Julie Henry, a newcomer to Earth First! His abuse of power, and the movement’s inability to address it, created an opening for the FBI to probe Henry years later in an attempt to turn her against the organization writ large. It didn’t work, but certainly has in the past. Ideally, those within a movement will have no need to settle old scores or seek justice through the state, because internal accountability measures are in place.
It is possible to collectively resist external efforts to sow division—coming from the state or elsewhere—but doing so calls for a degree of collective consciousness. The current social awakening and leftward tilt of American politics has been quite promising, but movements ought to develop more responsive networks of solidarity and accountability within the environmental movement and on the left in general. When we have these within our ranks, we have no need to rely on the state to resolve internal conflicts. By understanding how criminalization happens and how it serves as a form of political isolation, we become better at separating truth from lies. The more we distrust the state and are able to trust each other, the better our movements will be.
Lynn Wang is an environmental and marine scientist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her work has led her to Cape Eleuthera Institute, Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. She is a founding member of Asian American Feminists of Los Angeles. She tweets @tea_comrade.