Some members of the environmental movement, like this woman demonstrating against the U.S. energy policy, protest peacefully, while eco-terrorists take it to the extreme.

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History and Philosophy of Eco-terrorism

Individuals have defended the environment for decades. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace, which formed in 1892 and 1971 respectively, are two activist organizations that have pressured legislators, corporations and individuals to protect the environment throughout their existence -- without resorting to violence.

According to the FBI, eco-terror was born in 1977. In 1980, the group Earth First! came along and raised the stakes by engaging in acts of civil disobedience like tree spiking (the practice of hammering a nail into a tree to prevent it from being cut down, which can severely injure loggers).

The most well-known group linked to eco-terror in the U.S., the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, was formed when some members of the group Earth First! became frustrated with what they saw as an insufficient pace of change and began a group that would engage in more violent, direct action. Like the members of ELF, eco-terrorists are radical environmentalists who believe traditional ways of bringing about change are not adequate. They view politicians as ineffective and believe that if something is to be done, they must do it themselves.

Members of the eco-terror movement liken their predicament to fighting in a war. They suggest that animals and the environment are being attacked by humans and need to be defended. In an interview with National Geographic magazine, Leslie James Pickering, an ELF spokesman, claimed that members are simply defending the Earth and the elements that humans need to survive: "I'm representing a group that is fighting in self-defense, for preservation of our species [and] all species of life on Earth" [source: Foreman].

Other extreme environmental and animal rights groups compare their fight to the struggle to free slaves or to win women the right to vote. Those advocates didn't sit back and wait for their rights to be handed to them, activists say. They fought hard and often broke the law. Pickering seconds this argument, saying that "every successful social justice movement throughout history has had an element of radical activism or radical engagement. We're not gonna stop at what the system tells us to stop at" [source: Foreman]. Eco-terrorists argue that they are not the enemy; the enemy is all the people they are fighting.

But some environmental groups disagree. They fear that the violent extremism displayed by groups like ELF could create a backlash against the entire environmental movement and make it harder for more mainstream groups to effect change.

Some people even look favorably, or at least neutrally, upon groups like ELF [source: Schabner]. After all, they don't seek to intentionally harm anyone, even those they see as "the system." And how bad can they be if they're defending pristine waters, open prairies and cute little bunnies?

Pretty bad, according to the FBI, who considers them a top priority. Bad enough to be charged with federal crimes in some cases and sentenced to decades in prison -- if they can be caught. On the next page, you'll learn more about the organization and tactics of eco-terror groups and why they're so difficult to track down.