Globalisation’s Facilitation of Environmental Violence

by Roa Daher

Abstract: Globalisation has shaped many aspects of modern life, including the state of our environment. This paper approaches the topic of environmental violence through the lens of globalisation by arguing that globalisation and its by-products, like the media, have had an undeniable role in the rise of environmental violence, which is a form of environmental activism.

Introduction

Environmental violence, or green violence as it is sometimes called, has been defined by Büscher & Ramutsindela (2016) as “The deployment of violent instruments and tactics towards the protection of nature” (p. 10). This form of radical environmental activism surged in the 1970s as a response to the ineffectiveness of environmental organisations (Cianchi, 2015). Decades later, this environmentalist sentiment is still present as demonstrations have emerged to protest the observed bureaucratisation of environmental organisations, like Greenpeace, as they move away from radical action and more towards lobbying and working with governments (Cianchi, 2015). The aforementioned shift does not necessarily mean the elimination of environmental violence: in 2012, a Greenpeace ship was heading towards an Arctic oil rig in an effort to stop its operation but was interrupted by security forces (Walker, 2013). However, that does not seem to be enough, as radical environmentalist groups involved in green violence have seen unprecedented growth partly due to individuals’ frustration with the lack of government-led action in the face of climate change. Moreover, the typical political climate protests have been viewed as seemingly futile with very few considerable wins (Bartlett, 2017). As consequences of climate change become more palpable than ever before, activists may resort to green violence (Kaplan, 2020). Environmental violence, often committed by activists, is a relatively new phenomenon that emerged in recent decades, but it has been amplified by globalisation due to increased social interconnectedness, which has also given rise to “ecoterrorism.” In order to fully explain the connection between globalisation and the rise in environmental violence, the paper will first review the history of environmental violence, the role of the media and activism in a globalised world, and finally the emergence of ecoterrorism.

A Historical Overview of Environmental Violence

While environmentalism as a fleeting concept had been occupying the minds of individuals for many decades, a historical examination of radical environmentalism in its birthplace, the United States, begins in the 1960s with the rising popularity of environmental politics (Woodhouse, 2018). The new environmental movement was created as a result of the public’s awareness of the harmful effects of nuclear tests that were being conducted. Sills (1975) explained how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, acted as a major wake up call for millions of individuals in Western societies about the far-reaching harmful effects of DDT, which was a commonly used pesticide. At that point, the public began to realise that human health and the environment are irreversibly intertwined, which pushed environmentalism to the forefront of their minds and drove them to act (Mihaylov & Perkins, 2015). The public’s efforts seemingly came to fruition in the 1970s as environmental concerns were beginning to be taken seriously by the United Nations and governments worldwide, as seen by the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US in 1970 (Sills, 1975). This development did not satisfy the whole spectrum of the environmentalist movement. Instead, it arguably led to the emergence of radical environmentalist groups that utilised different forms of environmental violence.

The first radical environmentalist organisation, Earth First!, was formed by a group of conservationists in the 1980s because of the democratisation and ineffectiveness of mainstream environmental organisations (Woodhouse, 2018). Thus, Earth First! adopted an uncompromising position that prioritised, as the name suggests, the Earth’s condition and favoured violent action over political lobbying (Woodhouse, 2018). Since then, the proliferation and growth of radical environmentalist organisations has shown no signs of slowing down; it has been estimated that Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights (REAR) cells occupy a minimum of 25 countries and have committed more than 1,000 criminal acts in the United States between 1970 and 2007 (Bartlett, 2017). The increase in the size of radical environmentalist movements would not have been possible without globalisation and the enhanced social interconnectedness it presented. In fact, Dalton & Rohrschneider (1999) found that the formation of multinational environmental groups that spanned across continents and shared resources and information is indicative of the creation of a Transnational Social Movement concerned solely with environmental issues.

Media and Organising in the Age of Contemporary Globalisation

The intensification of contemporary globalisation that has occurred over the last forty years has played a key role in creating a global imaginary and the strengthening of social connections (Steger, 2017). One phenomenon that paved the path for the emergence of the global imaginary is the spread of media, both mass media for the public’s consumption and social media for personal use (Karat, n.d.). Mass media has created a global imaginary with access to more information than was ever available before. Therefore, the public has become more aware of global developments due to the mass media’s coverage. One such issue where media coverage is significantly influential is climate change, as Boykoff (2011) explains that “People throughout civil society rely upon media representations to help interpret and make sense of the many complexities relating to climate science” (p. 3). The mainstream media clarifies the significance of climate change and some of its potential impacts, like the creation of tens of millions of climate refugees (Taylor, 2017). As the headlines increase in urgency, there could be a global rise in the number of individuals who could be mobilised in the fight against climate change, meaning that more people could be willing to commit environmental violence as a response to the dire climate situation.

In addition to mainstream and mass media usage, the use of social media facilitates the creation of social linkages which has implications for the global activism. In the age of contemporary globalisation, the growth of social movements presents an intersection of global and local activism, which forms a global-local nexus of transnational activists who interact with the state, local and foreign groups, and communities (Alonso, 2009). Ironically, while analyses of globalisation have actually anticipated the demise of global protest movements, including radical environmentalist groups, global movements continue to grow in size (della Porta et al., 2006). One notable example of a current global social movement is the climate strikes, which were initially started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and now involve millions of students protesting for the sake of the climate and their future every Friday (Taylor et al., 2019). The climate strikes exemplify the global-local nexuses created by protesting for the same globalised issues in different localities as part of a larger global movement. Furthermore, while the climate strike is non-violent, it shows the impact of globalisation on the growth of social movements, especially those related to the environment, as can additionally be seen by the importance of the environment within the Global Justice Movement (Steger & Wilson, 2012). Although not all environmental movements condone the use of violence, the general growth of environmental movements may increase exposure to the concept, and justification, of green violence.

The Birth of ‘Ecoterrorism’

As green violence becomes more prevalent, there are rising concerns about the phenomenon termed as ecoterrorism. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States (FBI) defined ecoterrorism as “The use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature” (Hirsch-Hoefler & Mudde, 2014, p. 588). In light of the FBI’s definition, it is of significance to note that no individuals have been murdered in the name of radical environmentalist activism (Brown, 2019). Yet, as Taylor (1998) explains, law enforcement officials are using the Unabomber’s expressed sympathy for radical environmental groups as evidence of their terrorist nature. In order to evaluate the validity of ecoterrorism, the alleged terrorist actions should be assessed: in addition to large-scale civil disobedience demonstrations, radical environmentalists commit acts of tree spiking, powerline sabotage, and arson that do not cause any harm to humans (Taylor, 1998). 

Therefore, it becomes clear that the concept of ecoterrorism was created for other reasons. In fact, it may show the intersection of political and ecological dimensions of globalisation, such that the term ecoterrorism is a direct product of modern-day politicisation of climate change. After all, Fletcher (2018) states that the “ecoterrorist” label was created because the actions of radical environmentalists pose a direct challenge to the state’s own monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. Thus, the phenomenon of so-called ecoterrorism shows how destruction resulting from the ecological dimension of globalisation could empower individuals enough to take action that the state perceives as a threat to its sovereignty and security. In fact, Vanderhein (2018) argues that the creation of the word “ecoterrorist” serves the sole purpose of “directing the increased law enforcement powers of the US ‘war on terror’ against this form of resistance and conflating in the public mind a tactic that inflicts only property damage with one that aims its violence against innocent persons” (p. 299). Thus, there is no tangible difference between environmental violence and ecoterrorism as they both refer to the same thing, but one term is heavily politicised and created by the state while the other one is not, as all of the components that facilitated environmental violence culminated in the appearance of ecoterrorism.

Conclusion

There is a strong argument to be made that globalisation has amplified environmental violence by looking at the various dimensions of globalisation and how they affect radical environmentalist groups. An examination of the history of green violence uncovers its roots to show that it was born out of the inadequacies of the mainstream environmental movement which alienated some of its followers by the lack of radical action. Thus, environmental violence uses tactics that neither injure or kill humans as a way to draw attention to the cause nor threaten any environmental harm. Furthermore, the multiplication of social connections, partly due to different forms of media, has resulted in greater awareness of activist circles and the creation of a global imaginary participating in social movements. This gives the radical environmentalist groups greater exposure and a larger platform to promote green violence. Lastly, because of the increase in incidents of green violence, the FBI has used the term “ecoterrorism” to refer to certain acts of environmental violence despite its misleading meaning. Therefore, the intensification of globalisation and the consequences of the political and ecological dimensions of globalisation have ultimately resulted in the growth of the environmental violence movement.

References

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