When a problem reaches some critical point of no return, radical measures of the achievement of the goals seem to be a common thing. Radical environmental movements had appeared yet before the problem of environmental degradation had become the top issue in the international arena. Marshall Curry’s and Sam Cullman’s deep and striking documentary If a Tree Falls depicts the history of one of the most outrageous and drastic environmental organizations of the last decades. Telling the story of the rise and fall of the Earth Liberation Front and focusing on the fighting path of one of its members, the directors raise difficult questions about the environmental protection movements and incite to reevaluate our approaches to the definition of terrorism.
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As can be seen from the film, Earth Liberation Front since its foundation in the United Kingdom in 1992 had gained a significant population in Europe and America. For many years, this structure has acted through separate anonymous cells without centralized management. Unlike the majority of environmental organizations that only claimed the need for radical measures and in reality referred to moderate actions, ELF declared that the environmental balance can be reached only by force. For them, economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare attacks were the last resort to putting an end to environmental exploitation and destruction (“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” par. 2).
The ELFs organized arson attacks against dozens of businesses responsible for the natural degradation and terrorized occasional people who had some relation to the environmental destruction. Since every action entails a response and a battle with the governmental forces often becomes a losing one, the EFL actions do not seem to be successful. They could only have a short-term effect on potential supporters. Considering the examples of Greenpeace (which also has a solid experience of semi-radical activities) or WWF, one can see that non-violent protest turns out to be more successful due to higher support among people.
The authors of the film described the concept of “radical” in terms of the organization’s vision and philosophy rather than applying a governmental definition of this term as of something opposing to the law and order. For EFL, their actions were just and reasonable, as they seemed to be retaliation for all the harm the people cause to the planet. The viewer can see that even inside the local cell where the main hero, Daniel McGowan, operated there were often heated debates about where the limit of radicalization is and whether violence is justifiable. McGowan himself does not seem to be a radical extremist lusting for cruelty for the sake of cruelty; he is rather a once-sensible environmental advocate who turned on the vicious path. No matter how noble the aims may be, violence and grievance of the victims suffering because of their burnt homes can hardly be justified.
Despite conducting violent actions and causing physical damage, Daniel cannot be labeled a terrorist. He can be called an extremist or a hoodlum, but not a terrorist. The actions of the radical environmental activists cannot be compared with the atrocities of those crazy fighters from ISIS or Al Qaeda. The peak of the EFL’s activities and respective measures by the US government falls on the period when the world yet had not faced the true terror of 9/11. The aim of environmental extremists can be at least somehow justified. They usually do not strive to gain political power or material benefits. Terrorists, on the contrary, have no morality and use physical violence for manipulation and threatening.
Thus, it can be seen from If a Tree Falls that violent measures will never lead to constructive results, even if the aim is to save the universe. Environmental problems can be solved only through the peaceful cooperation of all the nations and movements. And ardent environmental radicals would better use their energy for creative rather than destructive ends.