ARTICLES BY JANET CULBERTSON
ECOTAGE by Janet Culbertson, Heresies Magazine
In Pennsylvania I often drove with my family to a relative's farm—a farm with rich volcanic soil, situated on rolling hills surrounded by dense forests. On the way we passed miles of smoldering slag heaps—strip mines. They remain fixed in my mind as an image of hell. Why does "development" of the land have to mean its destruction? As a child, I felt outraged and helpless. I still feel outraged. Today the destruction is so widespread that most people have at least some consciousness of it. Yet few people do anything about ecological problems until something happens in their neighborhoods. Then, however, they may act dramatically.
What interests me are those activists who have risked their freedom and even their lives by performing "ecotage."
"Ecotage" is a combination of "ecology" and "sabotage."It refers to the use of guerrilla tactics ranging from civil disobedience to overt sabotage that can be executed "without injury to life systems." These acts are performed by
people who hope to stimulate public awareness about environmental issues and to gain press coverage that exposes
polluters and exploiters. Ecotage started around 1970 with"The Fox" in Illinois, the "Billboard Bandits" in Michigan
and the "Eco-Commandos" in Florida. These ecoteurs' actions have taken many forms—from the dramatic destruction of billboards and sugaring of bulldozer tanks to the simple application of stickers reading, "BOYCOTT: this company is a polluter." They also advocate idealistic gestures such as sending memorial donations to ecology groups instead of cards and flowers to the deceased.
Ecotage seemed to originate in 1970 in Aurora, Illinois, with a man calling himself "The Fox." Taking his name from the polluted Fox River, he executed a series of well-planned actions to expose the pollution of Kane County's waters and countryside. He repeatedly plugged the illegal drains of soap companies and capped their smoking chimneys. Pursued and shot at, the Fox persisted, sending notes to the media to call attention to the polluters. He even appeared on a television interview wearing a black mask. His most publicized action was the presentation of the
"Fox Foundation for Conservation Action Award," given to the U.S. Steel Corporation. The prize was a 50-pound jar of foul, polluted sludge—a sample of water taken from Lake Michigan, where the company dumped its refuse. The Fox poured the contents of this jar on the office carpet of a company executive. He commented;"They keep saying that they aren't really polluting our water. If that is true, then it shouldn't hurt the rug, right?" By his example, the Fox inspired a decade of ecoteurs.
Also in 1970, a series of actions was taken by a Miami group calling themselves Eco-Commandos Force 70. A woman
and five men celebrated Earth Day by staging raids on six sewage plants that released dangerously high concentrates of pollutants in town waters. The method used was simple—at night, dressed in black, they slipped past plant guards and threw a highly visible but harmless yellow dye into the sewage holding tanks. The dye released its telltale color in a snakelike trail, proving that the sewage purification treatment was not only insufficient, but that the sewage lingered around the city.
One of this group's last direct actions was to motor about two miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, where 40 million gallons of raw sewage were pumped daily from Miami. Here they released 700 drift bottles containing the message to finders: "This is where the sewage goes." Within 12 days, over 70 of the bottled messages were returned from as far as 140 miles away. 3 The Eco-Commandos' communiques to the press documented health hazard incidents, such as "swimmers bumping into lumps of human feces," and revealed that pollution tests were being conducted only during favorable tides and winds in order to reassure the tourists. A lawyer was consulted prior to each action, and since the Eco-Commandos were a nonviolent group, they faced only a trespassing charge. They maintained anonymity and, according to a report by Peter Harnick in the book Ecotage, they are now rumored to be working within the system—preparing law suits, writing research reports and informing the public.
Other individuals leading normal lives have suddenly been "impressed" into becoming activists by circumstances and conscience. Ms. Magazine (November 1974) reported on Theima MacAdams of British Columbia, who noticed that a gas- masked pilot was spraying herbicide in her neighborhood. Resulting bird deaths showed the substance to be toxic. MacAdams found a biochemist—Merriam Doucet—and together they were able to stop the spraying by accruing information and sending protest letters to the newspapers. On another occasion, when letters didn't work and spraying was to be resumed, they called in neighborhood women, filled balloons with helium gas and floated them high above the area as obstacles to the airplane. This imaginative ploy succeeded.
In 1979, another spraying was protested by Joanne Rossell of Wolf Creek, Oregon. She enlisted neighborhood women to act against the Bureau of Land Management, which had developed a herbicide that produced abnormal growth in certain plants (they actually "grew themselves to death") although it left intact the valuable Douglas fir seedlings. The women suspected that this toxic substance would produce a similar accelerated growth in animals and humans. People in heavily sprayed areas began to report headaches, dizziness and gastrointestinal illnesses.
Pregnant women experienced an abnormal number of fetal malformations and miscarriages. At this point protesters took direct action to protect themselves. Pregnant women threatened to chain themselves to trees while other activists camped and tethered balloons on target sites.
Although the problem has not yet been resolved, the battle lines are drawn. Private citizens, particularly women, are taking responsibility for their environment. Marlene Lakin, the Fund for Animals agent in Canada, has led many active protests. Recently, in 1980, she organized a "chain-in" and hunger strike at the office of the federal fisheries in Toronto to protest the jailing of seal hunt opponents. The opponents were six women who had sprayed harp seal pups with a harmless dye that made their pelts commercially worthless. Each year many groups gather to attempt to foil the seal kill—sometimes covering the pups with their own bodies. Each year the jail sentences and fines grow stiffer...