It is understandable that the police would want to place place police undercover in groups in order to prevent and investigate terrorism. But, as George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian yesterday, it seems completely over the top to place officers in environmental groups for seven years to be agent provacateurs. Indeed, it is a complete waste of money since, unlike the aniimal rights movement, there is no record of environmental activists resorting to ecoterrorism to get their message across. (I suspect that the fact people who care about the environment tend to also care about animal rights has somehow led the police to become confused on the issue.)
But it could be argued that ecoterrorism is not a specific form of terrrorism but that all terrorism is ecoterrorism. One of my favourite philosophers, Peter Sloterdijk, has said in his article Airquakes that the essence of a terrorist is someone who attacks the ‘environment’ of a person or people in order to do harm to them.
Terrorism “presupposes…an explicit concept for the environment since terrorism represents the displacement of destructive action from the ‘system’ to its ‘environment’. From the beginning, it includes the “malignant expoitation of the life habits of the victim“. The need to breathe is ultimate turned against the breather. But the environment is not only the air. Sloterdijk draws on historical analogies of the “poisoning of potable water”, “medieval infectious attacks against defensive forts”, “burning and smoking of cities and refugee caves” through sieges and the “spreading of horrifying rumours or demoralising news”.
In a sense, the terrorists of 9/11 or 7/7 used the liberty and the opportunities that not only available in the West but are its environment to attack the West. So, when we respond by curbing those same liberties and opportunities, we are doing what the terrorists’ are doing.
For Sloterdijk, the first example of terrorism as ecoterrorism actually occurred during the First World War. It concerned the first significant use of chemical warfare. On 22 April 1915, the Germans deployed 150 tonnes of chlorine gas against Franco-Canadian infantry positions in the Ypres area. This became a cloud of gas about 6km wide and up to 900m deep, which was pushed towards the French positions by a favourable wind. Prolonged exposure to the gas produced intense damage to the lungs and respiratory systems.T
The use of the chlorine gas was different to traditional methods of combat, such as artillery and bayonets. From the Middle Ages right up to the First World War, it was the “role of defenders and warlords to direct themselves towards the enemy and the enemy’s protective shields with direct shots.” On 22 April 1915, and henceforth whenever chemical weapons have been used, a German soldier did not require direct contact with a French soldier in order to hurt him. The weapon only had to be released into the environment and often the environment takes it from there. As Shakespeare prophesied through Shylock in the Merchant of Venice: “You take my life/When you do take the means whereby I live”.
However, the expertise that developed chemical warfare was later used to develop the use of chemicals for peaceful means. Initially, German chemists turned their attention to the “bed bugs, flour moths, ticks and…cloth lice”. This in turn led to the introduction of hydrocyanic acid as a form of pesticide in agriculture. According to a specialist journal, by 1920, around 20 million cubic metres of built space had been gassed in order to deal with insect infestations. Hydrocyanic acid was developed further into a gaseous product called Zyklon A. The use of chemicals to attack the environment of an enemy has continued ever since.
Most recently, in Down v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the applicant applied for a judicial review of a decision to approve the use of a pesticide without a no-spray buffer zone, despite recommendations from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The applicant was a local resident who lived next door to the farm. She claimed that her health problems were as a result of being sprayed by pesticides and that the Government had not made an adequate risk assessment. While the court of first instance granted the review, the Court of Appeal upheld the Secretary of State’s appeal.
Sloterdijk made the observation in “Airquakes” that terrorism is a modus operandi and not a reference to a particular group and thus can be carried out by governments as much as non-state parties. Indeed, as our response to Islamic and Irish terrorism has shown, governments can become terrorists in their attempt to defeat the terrorists. With this in mind, there is arguable very little difference between the chemical agents used during a war and the use of a pesticide that unintentionally cause harm to human beings. Adequacy of the Secretary of State’s decision in Down notwithstanding, one could argue that the use of the pesticide without a no-spray zone was state-sponsored terrorism and Down, though not an enemy combatant, was collateral damage.
As Down shows, chemicals are being released into the environment every day, where there is no human enemy as such, in the name of industrialisation, economic progress and human convenience. Factories or power plants are pouring waste into the air and water. Farmers are using fertilizers and pesticides to meet the demands of consumers. And carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere with every vehicle drive, aeroplane flown and light switched on. In many ways, therefore, if we are not working to protect the environment, we are all complicit in terrorism. To misquote George Bush, we are with with the environment or against it.
If environmental pollution is a form of terrorism, then this raises the question whether methods used to tackle terrorism can be used to protect the environment. For example, should organisations that pollute the environment have their assets frozen? Should the remit of the “War on Terror” be expanded to the “War on Climate Change”? Would it be just to take military action against a country suspected having lax or ineffective pollution laws? Does a country like the Maldives have every right to bomb the US or Europe or Chine on the grounds of self-defence?
Of course, if anti-terrorism laws are to be considered in this way, then there should be some sort of assessment of their traditional effectiveness. After all, Sloterdijk noted that the use of chlorine gas in the First World War was “in conspicuous violation of Article 23a of the Hague War Convention of 1907, which explicitly forbade the use of poisons and weapons of any kind, that increase the suffering of the enemy, and…their deployment against non-combatant populations.”