The Rhetoric of Eco-Revolutionary Activism: Constructing the Earth Liberation Front

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In the mid-1990s, a new voice of environmental protest emerged in the United

States. Frustrated by the failures of both mainstream and radical environmental activism

to protect the Earth from the catastrophic effects of industrial capitalism, a small group of

clandestine activists identifying as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) utilized vandalism,

arson, and other means of property destruction to articulate a rhetoric of revolutionary

environmental resistance. An unlikely coalition of voices from industry, government, and

the established environmental movement emerged to oppose ELF, painting the activists

as dangerous eco-terrorists.

This study examines the dialectical contest to provide the dominant public

account of ELF’s enigmatic protest rhetoric. This rhetoric is referred to in the study as

eco-revolutionary activism, for it rejected even the radical discourses of its ideological

predecessors such as Earth First!, embracing instead a holistic critique of capitalism, the

state, and contemporary civilization. The study traces the dialectic that unfolded through

a series of key moments in the rise and fall of ELF in the public imaginary.

ELF made national headlines in 1998 when affiliated activists set fire to seven

buildings at a Colorado ski resort as a protest against the resort’s planned expansion into

ecologically fragile habitat. In the years that followed, ELF activists went on to commit

more than 100 protest actions, causing millions of dollars in economic damage and

prompting foundational questions about the meaning of violence, the limits of protest,

and the responsibility of individuals to combat harmful systems. Anti-ELF rhetors

publicly condemned ELF activists as eco-terrorists, taking advantage of cultural anxieties

about terrorism that emerged in the wake of events such as the Oklahoma City bombing

in 1995 and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By early 2006, the rhetoric of terror

had successfully trumped ELF’s eco-revolutionary rhetoric, functionally ending the

public dialectic on ELF. The study finds that, while ELF’s eco-revolutionary voice was

compelling and innovative, its flaws made it susceptible to the more powerful rhetoric of