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

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Olson, Jade
Klumpp, James F
Parry-Giles, Shawn J
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 terror.