Burn Wild & Project Unabom: A moment for environmental extremism
I’m pretty sure that 79-year-old anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan didn’t foresee both the BBC and Apple asking for interviews this past year. As anarchism has disappeared from any mainstream political relevance, so has Zerzan. For years he’d just been living in Eugene, Oregon with his dog, living a normal life, working in the environmental world. And yet, he’s been featured in two recent high budget podcasts: Burn Wild (BBC) and Project Unabom (Apple). His voice is old, soft, and is currently reaching millions of ears.
This is because for years he’s been an environmental activist who has written letters back and for with the imprisoned Unabomber, and someone who was tied up in the network known as the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF). Environmental extremism has become a matter of concern again despite almost zero legitimate environmental extremism happening for decades. Why?
Sure, Extinction Rebellion is throwing paint on artwork and shit, but do you remember the 90s? Do you remember when an anti-tech environmental terrorist successfully blackmailed the New York Times and Washington Post to publish his manifesto? Do you know that the FBI investigations into Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) were, until literally a few weeks ago, the most costly FBI terrorist investigation of all time? Apple and the BBC want you to. I also want you to.
There’s a moment in Project Unabom when they read a letter that a Discovery Channel producer sent Ted Kaczynski while the network was creating a show on his bombing campaign. The producer’s letter is unremarkable, but Ted’s response is not. He’s basically like, why do you still care about me? Why every few years do smart, educated, socially concerned people make shows about a guy who bailed on society and carried out a thirty-year bombing campaign against scientists and technologists? The question isn’t why I sent scientists bombs. I’ve made that abundantly clear. The question is why do you care?
The answer, I think, is because that Discovery Channel producer basically agrees with Kaczynski. I think this is true of the producers at Pineapple Street Studios and Apple today, and also is true of Leah Sottile’s standpoint on the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF): they do not support the violence, but the ideas behind the violence, well…they’re pretty good. They’re not some old Christian or Muslim theological diatribe, nor some racist white supremacist biologism. This was terrorism justified within the rational logic of the mainstream Western worldview.
As someone who researches the far-right, I’m not new to this experience. There is political critique I agree with in the El Paso manifesto, more in the Christchurch manifesto, even more in the Unabomber’s essay, and in each there is even more I disagree with. Crusius, Tarrant, and Kaczynski are all, ultimately, pieces of shit, ruined people. But the experience of agreeing with someone who is a piece of shit on some issues is something that I think we all need to open ourselves up to, rather than imagining ourselves as aligned with the most purified version of whatever political community we identify with.
Politics isn’t about who is a good or bad person, it’s about building and destroying actual coalitions and institutions that deliver a dignified life to the most humans and nonhumans as is feasible given technological and ideological constraints.
Look, if you’re someone who is concerned with the environment, with capitalism, with corporate overreach, with the obvious problems with social media and haven’t ever actually taken the time to read Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto which was, again, literally co-published by the NYT and Washington Post, I can guarantee you that when you do there will be moment where you think, “huh, he’s got a point.” That’s the problem. Maybe you should just listen to Project Unabom.
It’s important to remember that when Ted’s lawyers tried to use the insanity defense in his death penalty trial Kaczynski fired them. He was not insane, but he was a terrorist on behalf of an ideology that many of us, especially those of you subscribed here, live inside of. He was an extremist version of cold, rational, Enlightenment values who saw what many couldn’t at the time: that technology was slowly ruining us.
The way that terrorism is pitch publicly in the wake of Oklahoma City and 9/11 is that terrorism can only be motivated by radical ideologies, that is, ideologies that are not common sense to the American public, to FBI agents, and are not convenient for the maintenance of government power nor the profit of corporate America. For instance, violence motivated by making profit is not terrorism, but violence motivated by destroying profit is terrorism.
Our political system is built to insulate us from the violence our ideology causes in the world. We don’t see images of the Middle East anymore. We don’t see new lithium mines going up in Quebec and China. We don’t see the ongoing clashes between police and indigenous people in British Columbia and Alberta. We didn’t hear much about the water crisis in Jackson, MS. But the system also loves keeping alive and rehashing the violence against it. People are still writing about Ted Kaczynski because the political critique was actually good and the ideas therein are an actual ongoing threat to the system.
There’s been a lot written about the Unabomber, but far less written about ELF. And here’s my take: Project Unabom is a good podcast, but Burn Wild is better.
Burn Wild is written and produced by Leah Sottile of Bundyville fame. You know, they say when someone jumps from Oregon Public Broadcasting straight to the BBC a star is born. Bundyville was so fire that she had to follow it up with a show called Burn Wild, which focuses on Earth Liberation Front (ELF) who in the 1990s and early 2000s committed hundreds of acts of ecoterrorism against a wide range of environmentally destructive profitable endeavors. They fucked up golf courses, poured sand in the gas lines of mining machinery, and most famously burnt down a lodge at Vail.
Can something be terrorism if no one dies? If terrorism requires ideologically motivated violence, does the destruction on behalf of climate change qualify as “ideological”? Should these folks who killed no one be in prison for life? In the US, yes. Corporations lobbied Congress in the 90s as ELF was destroying shit to ensure that ecoterrorists focused on property destruction would be tried as terrorists. It worked. EFL killed zero people, and yet garnered more attention from the FBI than 9/11. They ruined the lives of the people they caught, and everyone basically stopped.
There is no radical environmentalism anymore, but I get the sense that Apple and the BBC want more of it. As our environmental situation continues to get worse, extremism will re-emerge. Those of us in the environmental world will, and should, feel morally compromised about it in the same-ish way that any Christian should feel compromised by Christian nationalist terror, or libertarians about the Bundys.
Dealing with others taking your basic politics to the extreme is an experience that we all need to become familiar with. For those of us who are smart, educated, environmentally-conscious, democratic people it’s hard to imagine an extremist version of ourselves. I’m not sure if the Unabomber qualifies, but I think ELF does, and I think we’d all be better for learning that history.