In 2019, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg was named Time’s person of the year. She was featured on the magazine’s cover next to the caption “the power of youth”. The Swedish girl launched the Fridays for Future (FFF) initiative, which spread on a global level, as thousands of activists from the West to Asia and beyond got involved. In June 2017, US President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change. The climate crisis has since become a hot topic in public debates and has figured in on several politicians’ agendas.
Several protests and rallies across Europe attracted a significant number of young people who chanted powerful slogans warning of global warming and criticizing the exploitation of natural resources by powerful money-hungry companies. In June 2019, hundreds of protesters stormed the Garzweiler coal mine in Germany and police used pepper spray to stop activists from reaching the site. Both sides accused the other of using unnecessary force. Some of the activists were among those who joined a demonstration in the city of Aachen in support of the Friday for Future strike launched by Thunberg.
Again, in November 2019, hundreds of protesters stormed both the German Jaenschwalde Ost mine and the Welzow-Sued mine. Both mines in Lausitz are operated by the Czech-controlled LEAG, while another company, MIBRAG, operates the Vereinigtes Schleenhain site, south of Leipzig. Around 1,200 protesters blocked a coal-excavator at the site, forcing operations to a halt. Activists blocked train tracks at some sites, seeking to disrupt the flow of coal to power plants. The action was organized by the environmental group Ende Gelände (End of the Road). Both MIBRAG and LEAG filed legal action against the protesters. In August 2020, climate protesters targeted excavation plans at Garzweiler 2, a giant lignite coal mine in western Germany. A dozen members of the movement Extinction Rebellion invaded the mine grounds and occupied a giant excavator, sparking an escalation with the mine’s security personnel.
Over the past few years, the environmentalist movement has experienced an unprecedented surge of support and approval, especially among young people. New organizations and groups were established in the following years, but their goals and cultural framework drastically differed. The vast majority of climate activists have successfully increased public awareness around environmental issues, emphasizing the need for quick decisions to prevent an ecological catastrophe.
Nevertheless, amidst political activism and rising tensions, there is always the risk of fringe groups harboring radical ideas or even violent behaviors. Some of these groups operate in a grey zone between legality and unlawful tactics. In France, an environmental and anarchist group called “zadistes” (from ZAD, zone à défendre, zone to defend) occupied areas intended for development projects, preventing construction, and some of their members went to Syria to join groups linked to the terrorist PKK.
Merger with Animal Rights Groups
What is more, the environmentalist movement has benefitted from the merger with the animal rights movement and anarchist/leftist groups. In the past decades, these categories of activism have largely focused on their own specific agenda, while now there is increasing cooperation and ideological unity.
For instance, in May 2018 Extinction Rebellion (XR) was established in the UK to advocate climate change mitigation, nature conservation and environmental protection. In two years, the movement has grown significantly and spread beyond Britain. In June 2019, the group Animal Rebellion — which is associated with Extinction Rebellion — was established in London, it is associated with Extinction Rebellion. Animal Rebellion staged protests and blockades in the UK, Ireland and The Czech Republic.
Despite nonviolence being among its 10 principles, the movement was criticized for some controversial initiatives that involved unlawful actions. Also, the group used language and symbols of an apocalyptic culture — the Anthropocene extinction which uses a stylized hourglass as its logo. The word “rebellion” itself usually has a violent connotation, and a group of Bristol street performers created the so-called Red Brigade, which could just be military jargon, but is a questionable choice given the identical name of the Italian terrorist organization.
Terrorists or Disruptors?
In 2019, the South East Counterterrorism Unit police authority listed Extinction Rebellion — alongside neo-Nazi, anarchist and Islamist terrorist groups — as a threat, in a guide titled “Safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism”. The list included extremist ideologies that should be reported to the authorities running the Prevent program. Following the disclosure of the document, the police unit disavowed it. Extinction Rebellion is certainly not a terrorist group and should not be treated as such. However, the risk of radicalization and violent extremism of young activists is real.
On September 5, 2020, Extinction Rebellion protesters used trucks and bamboo scaffolds to block roads outside the Newsprinters works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool. The presses print the Sun, Times, Sun on Sunday and Sunday Times, as well as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard. In a statement, Extinction Rebellion said the action was designed to disrupt and expose what it called a “failure to adequately report on the climate emergency”. By Saturday morning, police said about 72 activists had been arrested. Ministers and MPs have condemned XR activists for blocking the delivery of newspapers across the UK.
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, condemned the protest and said: “The free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it. Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change.” On her part, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said Extinction Rebellion activists are “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and described XR as an “emerging threat”. Patel added: “The very criminals who disrupt our free society must be stopped. And together we must all stand firm against the guerilla tactics of Extinction Rebellion”. Thunberg responded by addressing an Extinction Rebellion rally at Marble Arch in London in April 2019, calling for further action. Later in October, she called on XR protesters to defy a police order banning them from protesting across the capital.
The UK government considered classifying XR as an “organized crime group”, but police structures opposed the definition. The police regard XR as a non-violent group committed to civil disobedience and more of a time-consuming nuisance for officers to deal with. Police described XR action against newspapers as “sophisticated” and a well-prepared military-style operation.
This was not the only sophisticated action of civil disobedience carried out by the environmental movement. Major occupations, blockades and protests took place in the so-called “International Rebellion” in October 2019, and again in autumn 2020. Similar initiatives occurred in Austria, the Netherlands, France and elsewhere.
Drastically Different Values
What is interesting about the merger between the ecological campaign and the animal rights culture is contained in the anti-speciesism values of Animal Rebellion. Anti-speciesism activists believe that humans have no right to treat other species in a way that would be judged as wrong, if humans were treated that way.
It is important to discern between the ideologies of deep ecology and animal liberation, but also between animal welfare and animal rights activists. Deep ecology postulates a total rejection of the anthropocentric paradigm, denying the supremacy of the human being. Deep ecology proposes a “biocentric” view of inter-species relations and accepts the killing of animals, when this is in line with vital human needs and respects the natural balance. The animal liberation theory, on the other hand, is against the killing of any sentient beings, especially of “innocent creatures”. The animal rights movement usually belongs to this category.
The difference between animal welfare and animal rights is defined by the relation with humans. Animal welfare activists think animals should be treated in the most “human” and respectful way possible, but as they are not equal to humans, they cannot have rights. While animal rights activists—also known as animal liberators — believe animals are entitled to rights of respect and dignity, comparable to those that humans enjoy. Therefore, in their view killing animals should be considered a crime, just as killing human beings is a crime. In 2001, British animal rights activist Barry Horne (sentenced to 18 years in prison for sabotage with incendiary bombs) died during a hunger strike, the goal of which was to make the Labour party keep its promise of establishing a vivisection commission.
Violent Actions from Splinter Groups
In this context, the risk of radicalization among vulnerable individuals may lead to extremist campaigns or even violent actions. For many years, the Animal Liberation Front and other groups carried out isolated arson and bomb attacks on the breeding industry. Since 2016, another major radical anti-speciesism organization 269 Libération Animale was established in France as a splinter group of the more moderate 269 Life France. Liberation Animale was responsible for several actions, not only in France, but also in northern Italy. Such as the occupation of the Turin public slaughterhouse, with the participation of several Italian anarchists active in the No-Tav environmental movement, that opposes the construction of the high-speed railway in Susa valley, Italy.
The concept of deep ecology and a biocentric worldview facilitate the merger with the ecological movement, as Extinction Rebellion and Animal Rebellion show. However, this is not the only merger the movement is experiencing. As the case of Turin shows, the anarchist and Antifa networks are increasingly active in the ecological and animal rights sphere. They bring about their methods and tactics, that sometimes involve the use of violence and illegal activities. However, far-right groups have become more and more open to the animal cause. In Serbia, the Leviathan Movement is a far-right ultra-nationalist political party that identifies as an animal rights organization. It threatens and harasses migrants and ethnic minorities, but advocates for the punishment of animal abusers. Also, in Italy neo-fascist groups such as CasaPound Italia and Lealtà e Azione created pro-environment and pro-animal groups “La foresta che avanza” and “I lupi danno la zampa”, respectively, in an attempt to intercept single-issue voters. The leader of the animal rights association “Centopercentoanimalisti” is a former candidate of the Forza Nuova neo-fascist party.
On July 22, 2020, a hostage situation took place in Lutsk, Ukraine. Before seizing a bus with 13 passengers, Maksym Kryvosh wrote on Twitter that “the state is the first terrorist”. During the negotiations, he demanded that President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky publish a Facebook video in which he recommends the 2005 documentary film Earthlings, about human exploitation of animals. Zelensky complied with the request, and after all hostages were released the video was deleted. Kryvosh was described as a disturbed individual and was arrested on terrorism charges, but succeeded in his goal to promote the animal liberation cause.
It is likely that in the future other radicalized activists could employ similar tactics to those used in Ukraine — deemed acceptable because there were no casualties — to pursue their political objectives. If European governments fail to address the legitimate demands of the environmental movement to stop the climate crisis, the risk of radicalization and violent extremism, especially among vulnerable and frustrated youths, will grow and become a serious threat. The solutions to prevent this include quick policy responses, a structured dialogue at national and European levels, as well as the implementation of a green industrial conversion.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.