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A New Generation of Eco-Terrorists Are Killing People to Save the Earth

The calculus of righteous violence and a potential turn of the environmental movement to the dark side

On the fourth day of this year, sometime around noon, Rolando Torres stood at a roundabout in Santiago, Chile, with his wife Magaly del Carmen Valle. As the couple waited for a bus, a bomb exploded. Caught without warning, hot metal shrapnel tore through their bodies. The Venezuelan couple never expected to be victims of such a violent attack, especially in a picturesque spot in the Chilean capital. Luckily, the DIY bomb killed no one, but husband and wife, along with three other victims, were hospitalized and treated for severe wounds.

The group that claimed responsibility for the explosion is a band of eco-terrorists known as Individualistas Tendientes a lo Salvaje (Individuals Tending to the Wild), or ITS, a loose collective of cells, each acting independently, and each hidden somewhere in the vast terrain of Latin America — the mountains, valleys, jungles, cities and pueblos that stretch from Mexico to Argentina. Their aim is fairly straightforward: They want to destroy our tech-obsessed, tech-driven world, and to return humanity to living as bands of hunter-gatherers. They believe it’s the only way to save us from a sort of forced apocalypse. “We kill because this is a WAR,” an ITS cell told the media in July 2016, after it claimed credit for killing José Jaime Barrera Moreno, chief of Chemical Services at National Autonomous University of Mexico. “We kill because we do not recognize another law that is not natural laws, the laws that govern EVERYTHING in this dead world.”

They’ve also made it clear that they’ve transcended the dark hope of the 1990s eco-politics of the Unabomber and his dreamed-of “green revolution.” “We do not believe in revolutions because you are always going toward ‘problem-solving,’ toward ‘build something new’ and ‘better.’ Let us tell you that the era of ‘revolutions’ and ‘revolutionaries’ has ended. It does not exist. A ‘revolution’ that can change a negative thing into a positive one is impossible because today: everything is corrupt. Everything is for sale. What governs the world today is not political power, but economic power. Revolutions are things of the past, and we have understood this very well.”

ITS first made news back in 2013 when they started sending bombs to Latin American scientists. In particular, they targeted nanotech researchers and waged war on Mexican universities and scientists in an effort highly imitative of the Unabomber, who was both unimpressed and encouraging at the same time. In a letter from his federal prison cell, Ted Kaczynski denounced ITS. He called them and their politics foolish. Still, he didn’t tell them to stop; instead, he implored them to dream bigger. It’s advice they seem to have followed as they most recently made multiple threats against the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka.

To get a sense of this new era of eco-terrorism waged by ITS and a likeminded band of rogue environmentalists, libertarian radicals and eco-anarchists who are willing to use violence to raise the stakes of their fight, I called up writer Jamie Bartlett. He’s the author of numerous books, including Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World. He’s also recently written a controversial essay for Foreign Policy entitled “The Next Wave of Extremists Will Be Green.” In it, he outlines the shape of things to come and offers his own warning that the fight is more complicated than it seems because authorities don’t properly distinguish environmental activism from eco-terrorism.

He’s speaking from personal experience, too. That is, he’s spent time with numerous eco-extremists and agitated environmentalists, and from his time with them, he’s identified many of the dynamics of how and why young militants radicalize. An edited version of our conversation is below.

In your Foreign Policy essay, you talk about a “sense of grievance” among some environmentalists and a feeling that “legitimate channels for redress are shut off, inaccessible or ineffective” to them. When people begin to feel like that, they’re willing to consider drastic alternatives. That seems an apt description of how many people are feeling right now about the ecological collapse of our shared planet.

You also suggest that “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 of redemption.” So should we expect the rise of some sort of charismatic figure?

The thing about radical environmentalists is that they’re part of a wider anti-globalization movement –– although they’re influenced by a lot of things, different theories and philosophies. This means they tend to dislike the charismatic individual leader. They prefer to be a collective with flat hierarchies. So I’m not sure it will follow the same logic that we usually expect from radical groups. I’d imagine it to be a little more like a cell-based system — a kind of nameless militancy, one wherein a collective puts out communiques, a bit like the 1970s radical left-wing groups.

The activist group Anonymous is part of that same sort of thinking. It’s partly a tactical decision, inn’it? You can’t take one person out and destroy the movement. It’s also a deeper-rooted philosophy: The problem with capitalism, which is at the heart of the environmental catastrophe, is that it’s all about hierarchies and patriarchies. And thus, we’re going to see the creation of a movement that doesn’t conform to those problems. That serves two purposes, really: One is the tactical; and secondly, it’s a reflection of their anti-capitalist thinking.

While you were researching your recent book, Radicals Chasing Utopia: Inside the Rogue Movements Trying to Change the World, you spent time with Earth First! radicals and other hardline environmentalists. What’s their rhetoric like these days?

There’s a definite feeling of desperation and frustration. Like, “We’ve been trying all the democratic and legal means available to us. We’ve been playing by the rules. We’re non-violent. We’re really trying to use protest and activism in the way that we’re supposed to.” But that’s coupled with a growing feeling that time is running out. So you’re beginning to see a little bit of, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

There’s another side to it as well, which is a sort of… How can I put this? It’s a sort of exasperation. “Why is it that people aren’t waking up to this? What on earth is going on? We know what happened. We’re being told repeatedly. But why aren’t people out on the streets doing something?”

Have you seen Children of Men? The movie opens with an eco-terrorist attack; it’s a cinematic articulation of what we might soon expect to see in real life. Their dire situation calls for urgent action, their rhetoric matches their dire circumstances. They enact violence as protest and also to rally people to their cause.

What happens with a lot of extremist groups –– and I use the word extremist, but I hate to use it because I look at what they’re saying and I’m like, “Logically, objectively thinking, you shouldn’t be seen as the extremists, really. You’re the ones talking sense, and the rest of us have gone mad.” But what tends to happen in all extremist groups –– or let’s say, groups that try to effect radical changes in society –– is you get a kind of divergence where a splinter of the movement will say, “We’re being democratic. We’re protesting. We’re not breaking the law. We’re doing everything right. But it’s still not working. And so, we’re going to become an offshoot that has to take things to the next level. We’re going to have to take more extreme measures.”

I can imagine then that we’ll see more splintering of the broader environmental movement. There will be those who believe you have to act much tougher, much more radical, and those who decide to carry on protesting through legal routes.

In a way that’s what the Earth First! was. The Earth First! movement was a big radical movement, but the Earth Liberation Front splintered off and became a violent offshoot of it. The two groups parted ways and wouldn’t speak to one another. Most environmentalists are explicitly committed to non-violence actions. They don’t want to hurt people. But they will be very militant. They will chain themselves to things. They will vandalize property and physical objects, but they don’t want to hurt people. Islamists and far-right terrorists, they have far less problems with targeting innocent civilians. I don’t think the environmentalists want to do that. As such, that will become a real key point in the divergence of the radical fringes.

If that’s the case, do you think eco-extremists will more likely choose martyrdom as a tactic? Like how Buddhist monks in Vietnam would set themselves on fire during the war?

That might be more likely, actually. But it’s far more likely that, for them, the question of greater militancy will mean: “Are you willing to chain yourself to things, or go on hunger strikes? Are you willing to go get yourself arrested and make a martyr of yourself that way?” Because people within these movements are smart. They do realize that you need people to rally around your movement and your story as individuals. If people can martyr themselves by hunger strike, that’s the kind of “call to solidarity” I’d expect to see fairly soon.

In the eco-extremist groups, has there been more international consensus, or more efforts to act in solidarity?

They will travel around to each other’s demonstrations fairly often. That’s a bit of a difference from three or four years ago. There’s this idea that this is a global movement. For example, the Extinction Rebellion movement has only just come around in the last three months. And they’re really causing quite a stir. They’re one of those groups that’s willing to get themselves arrested in large numbers. They’re out in the streets here in London. In the middle of the Christmas shopping season, they shut down Oxford Circus. They’re quite happy to get arrested.

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of indigenous activists stand up to Big Oil, not just at Standing Rock, but all over the world. They demand respect for the earth. They call themselves earth protectors and water protectors, yet they get labeled as activists. In fact, sometimes in the U.S., if these water protectors harm a pipeline or the infrastructure of the oil companies, they can be legally labeled as domestic terrorists. But that doesn’t seem right. If anything, doesn’t the over-use of that term muddy the waters of prosecution, and ultimately, cause authorities to overreact, which makes them more likely to miss real, grave threats?

This is the reason why I wrote the Foreign Policy article. I was trying to make the argument that it’s inevitable we see more militant protest and actions, but also they shouldn’t be labeled as domestic terrorists. If we do that, they’ll come under the anti-terrorism legislation, or in the U.K., they’ll come under counter-terrorism prevention policy. That’s a really stupid and dangerous way of looking at it. I was hoping my article would make the case that we should continue to see these people as legitimate political activists. Ones who are reasonable in what they’re doing, even if, yes, they’re causing civil problems through civil disobedience. But that’s a legitimate tactic of activism. And their cause is reasonable enough.

In one strange way, though, there could be an upside to that, which is that people become outraged and disgusted that they’re being called terrorists, which could cause more people to join the cause.

Some experts, like Roger Hallam who is an activist and a specialist in collective action theory, are surprised we haven’t seen more militant environmentalism. Are you?

I am surprised. I think the reason is that environmental activism has become a lifestyle choice for people. It’s become associated with white, middle-class university graduates who are able to worry about these things, because they don’t have to worry about getting food on the table. And that can alienate a lot of people. I think that’s been the reason that environmentalism has remained much smaller than it should be. By rights, it should be the biggest protest in the world. It should be the biggest thing any of us care about. But it isn’t, which is unfortunate. Part of the problem is that the environmental problem is obviously abstract for a lot of people. They don’t see it day to day.

The anti-fracking movement, however, is different. You’re talking about people who have dire issues with the water in their town. You get a totally different dynamic. That’s why anti-fracking activism has become so big, so quickly. The demographics are different, too. It draws in people based on their own personal fears. The frustration, though, is that at the point at which the environment becomes so bad that everyone cares about it is the point at which it’s too late to do anything about it.

Do you think that means we’ll see a synthesis of the environmental fights, so that these anti-fracking grandmothers and the indigenous activists taking on Big Oil are suddenly on the same page, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder to save the environment?

That’s what we need to try to do. Because you don’t want a group of white people turning up and taking over the movement. You don’t want them to marginalize the people who are directly affected. That’s what’s happened in the past. So you need to find a way of making sure the movement is led by the people on the front lines whose lives are being affected. And yet, it’s also still very publicly, very obviously and very clearly a broad-based movement. I don’t know that I have the answers to that. Some of this is a built-in problem due to how movements form around social groups, which then become exclusionary because they become self-perpetuating. There’s not an easy way around that problem.

We all know that we’re screwed. We’re in such a bad situation. This question of how to save our environment is huge. The people who choose to engage in direct action, in militant actions –– in 20 years time, 30, 50 years time — will be looked back upon in the same way we speak of the suffragettes now, or Civil Rights workers and the abolitionists. We’ll look back and say, “Those people were right. At the time we called them extremists, but they were right about this, and they were right to take action.”

That’s where my fear about people turning violent comes in. Violence is what happens when groups feel like the cause is so great and the democratic means to change things just isn’t working. Not to mention, when governments start to call them terrorists, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’ll be like, “We’re being outlawed. We’re not allowed to protest. All we can do is raise the intensity of our direct actions.”

They may think, Fine, we’ll act like the people you claim us to be.

And I don’t think anyone really wants that.

Ultimately, if environmentalists and water protectors can’t get the job done, and waves of eco-terrorists rise up to save us from ecological collapse, are they really the bad guys? As you say, one day, history may look upon them the way we look upon the suffragettes. They were violent, they were desperate, but they were right.

If some lone wolf or splinter group of radicals — because the broad environmentalist group won’t support this — were to commit some act of murder or something, it would be labeled as a terrorist act. Because the definition of terrorism is using violence to political ends. So there might be a few occasions where you could say it’s terrorism. But my real worry is that we label the whole lot of them domestic terrorists or environmental extremists.

That’s such a bad idea. They’re activists. They’re not trying to hurt people; they’re trying to help people. They’re trying to liberate people. They’re trying to save us. They’re not trying to kill us. They’re not even trying to enforce a dogmatic philosophy on us. They’re just trying to allow us to continue to live together.

So yes, I really, really hope we don’t go down the path that, unfortunately, recent history suggests that that’s probably where we’re going to end up.