What is Eco-terrorism and how did it start?

Eco-terrorism is an ideological framework that incorporates direct action and terrorist attacks with environmental causes.  

Terrorism stems from solid ideological beliefs, and an actor or group willing to commit horrible atrocities to further them. Strangely enough, the dark tendrils of terrorism can reach into obscure places, corrupting even the most noble of causes, like environmentalism. 

Environmental issues are some of the most covered in modern news cycles. One central issue – climate change – is a realistic threat with grave potential for the human species. It is a topic that invokes passion and zeal in citizens, who feel not enough is being done to lessen its inevitable sting
It is of great fortune that climate change advocacy has remained peaceful and diplomatic, at least for now. Environmental movements in recent history have had more violent outcomes. 

Like all political and social movements, the environmental movement has its fringe elements, such as niche organizations and obscure demonstrations. And then to the furthest extremes, you have people who believe so strongly in the earth’s preservation that simple activism isn’t enough. 

According to the FBI, eco-terrorism is “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.”

The history of eco-terrorism is recent in the grand scheme of things, and although it isn’t the most relevant form of terrorism to plague the world, there is an obscure form of it brewing in an unlikely wing of the political spectrum. Before that last point goes further, it’s helpful to backtrack and give some context behind eco-terrorism, starting with a bit of Scandinavian philosophy.

Environmental activist graffiti (Flickr)

Deep ecology

Eco-terrorism has philosophical and social justice-oriented underpinnings. 

In 1972, Arne Næss, a Norwegian philosopher, was the conceptual father of the “deep ecology” movement. This strand of environmental philosophy seeks to promote a deeper relationship between humanity and nature. Næss believed that pure environmental activism did not make a change. Humans need to recalibrate and assign an inherent value to nature. Equality between the two forces (humans and nature) is a requirement for future harmony. 

Næss, along with an American environmental activist named George Sessions, took the philosophy of deep ecology a step further from the conceptual. In 1984, they developed “The Deep Ecology Platform”, which according to Britannica “was offered not as a rigid or dogmatic manifesto but rather as a set of fairly general principles that could help people articulate their own deep ecological positions.”

They reduced those principles to eight specific points:

  1. “The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves…. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.”
  2. “Richness and diversity…contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.”
  3. “Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.”
  4. “Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.”
  5. “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.”
  6. “Policies must therefore be changed…[to] affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.…”
  7. “The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality…rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living.…”
  8. “Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.”

At first glance, those ideas read as a basis for a movement – – with a stronger social justice leaning – much like the 1960s counter-culture movement in the US. 
In a more sinister sense, they ended up contributing to the foundations of eco-terrorism. Like the Holy Bible and Quran, all it takes is a fringe element of extremists to weaponise innocent and benevolent ideas. 

Arne Næss (wikicommons)

Eco-terrorism and Elfes

Contrary to the myriad of terrorist organizations across the world, eco-terrorist groups are rather dormant in the current zeitgeist. 
Of all the known groups, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is the Al-Qaeda of eco-terrorism (minus the mass murder, complex terror attacks, global campaign of terror, etc…). 

The ELF was a splinter group from Earth First!, a US born environmental activist organization that was founded in 1980. Earth First! has a strong anarchist leaning, and during its early days conducted direct action activities against infrastructure projects that threatened the environment. The movement spread across the Atlantic, eventually making its way into the UK and mainland Europe. 

Earth First! began a shift away from illegal tactics in the early 1990s, which was met with dismay by some of the more extreme members. In 1992, a faction of disgruntled Earth First!ers based in the UK formed the ELF, and continued to carry out direct action attacks to support environmental causes. This movement spread throughout Europe and imported itself back to the US. 

Tactics, techniques, and procedues

Similarly to the Proud Boys and ANTIFA, the ELF is devoid of a centralized leadership structure, or any real universal organization. They instead are a selection of independent cells who are self-sustaining and have their own internal networks and means of planning and logistics. The ideological strength of the ELF is the center of gravity that inspires organization and action.

Most of their activity was between 1995 and 2010. According to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ELF (along with its animal rights oriented relative the Animal Liberation Front) conducted 54.8% of arsons and bombings associated with those movements during that time period. The peak of those events was in 2003, followed by a rather steep decline, minus some small spikes in activity between 2006 and 2010. Private homes of targets, vehicles, logging companies, and other issue-related businesses were the most common victims of ELF attacks. 

ELF attack methods are a case study in the direct-action nature of eco-terrorism and are the same model lesser-known groups use for their own activities. According to the FBI:

“The ELF advocates “monkeywrenching,” a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment. “Monkeywrenching” includes tree spiking, arson, sabotage of logging or construction equipment, and other types of property destruction.”


“The most destructive practice of the ALF/ELF is arson. The ALF/ELF members consistently use improvised incendiary devices equipped with crude but effective timing mechanisms. These incendiary devices are often constructed based upon instructions found on the ALF/ELF websites. The ALF/ELF criminal incidents often involve pre-activity surveillance and well-planned operations. Members are believed to engage in significant intelligence gathering against potential targets, including the review of industry/trade publications, photographic/video surveillance of potential targets, and posting details about potential targets on the internet.”

ELF activity is relatively unheard of in the current era. Not that they don’t exist, but the lack of any proper organization or structure, and lack of attacks, has essentially bookmarked them into recent history. 

Fringe extremists are of no shortage now, however, and some of the most unlikely ideological driven factions of the far right have adopted eco-terrorism and deep ecology, converging those ideas with racism and hate. 

Eco-terrorism + fascism = Eco-fascism 

Environmental causes and the aforementioned forefathers of eco-terrorism are left-wing oriented by nature. Interestingly enough, the far-right has incorporated deep ecology into their pre-existing ideological frameworks. 

In the plainest terms, acolytes of eco-fascism believe that over-population is a threat to the environment, along with the other standard causes (climate change, deforestation, industry, pollution, etc). 

The twist is that its immigration and people of color to blame, which is when the neo-Nazi/white supremacist/white nationalistic movements come into play. 

According to Sarah Manavis at The New Statesman, eco-fascism is essentially an umbrella term which contains various ideological manifestations underneath its curtain. A common element is that “the wellbeing of our earth, nature and animal” are “on the forefront of their ideology.” 

She writes, “That seemingly benign focus expresses itself as an ideology that embraces and combines modern-day neo-Nazism with environmentalism—and a belief that going back to ancient geographical roots is the answer to society’s biggest problems. Eco-fascists believe that living in the original regions a race is meant to have originated in and shunning multiculturalism is the only way to save the planet they prioritise above all else.”

Norse mythology, veganism, and general practice of environmental preservation are all part of the eco-fascist aesthetic, which has a presence on social media websites. 

According to Jason Wilson at The Guardian, “This subculture – which so far appears to be small in number – is frequently drawn to a so-called “terror wave” aesthetic, which elevates images of terrorist insurgency; promotes a specific, martial fashion imagery; and fantasies about armed conflict in the wake of environmental and social collapse.” 

As abstract and uncanny as eco-fascism may sound, it has realistic potential for future eco-terrorism related attacks. The recent rise in white nationalist and far-right groups in the US and Europe has revealed a very present and dangerous threat to populations, and ideological evolution is in full-force as the cultural and political climate continues to shift. It’s rather ironic, and somewhat morbid, but the future of eco-terrorism may take a sharp turn to the right. 


Michael Ellmer

Michael served as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Corps, he completed his undergraduate studies at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in communications. He is currently a graduate candidate at Brunel University, where he is pursing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis.

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