Eco-Policing and What it Means for Modern Environmentalism

Editor's Note: The following is a timely discussion after our preceding post, where two activists from a Sea Shepherd ship were taken hostage after endeavouring to enforce a recent and overdue Australian Federal Court injunction ordering the cessation of all whaling activities in its waters.

The idea of eco-policing is not an entirely new concept. It was posited last year by László Sólyom at the World Science Forum as a way of regulating climate change. Yet there is another form of eco-policing at work in the world and this is what we intend to discuss. It has come to the fore with the recent anti-whaling campaign currently being conducted by Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. This is direct-action eco-policing and it has nothing to do with regulations. It has also been making headlines for the competitive streak between these two organisations which, despite having the same goal, use entirely different methods. It is a reworking of the old shallow versus deep environmental debate although this time it is anything but theoretical. Greenpeace, once seen as a radical environmentalist group, is now seen as established, or even benign. On the other hand Paul Watson, leader of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), embodies the archetypal environmental extremist or radical. This has earned him the striking label of ‘eco-terrorist.’

The events seem to encapsulate the contemporary problems of environmental response. Where you stand could easily be established by answering whether you see Watson as dangerous extremist or whether you see him as principled, or even heroic. Interestingly Watson sees himself as nothing more than a kind of ecological police officer enforcing what governments are too lazy or scared to do. While Watson does defer to international law when declaring the Japanese expedition illegal it’s clear he is driven by something more profound; an ecological awareness or intuition which drives him. For taking this position Watson has become a hate figure. Anybody seeking non-biased or non-hysterical articles on Watson might have a hard time once they get past the usual Wikipedia articles. The worst part is the shady tactics employed by these websites which seem to enjoy plucking Watson’s most extravagant sayings without contextualising them in order to portray him as a misanthropic mad man. Now Watson is prone to a degree of excess when it comes to expressing himself, but some of the accusations against him go much too far. This is clearly not a man who elicits moderate responses.

Captain Paul Watson
One notable difference between Watson and other animal rights activists is that he can elicit a sympathetic response from the same people who might condemn direct-action animal rights groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. Perhaps it’s down to the Romantic images of a modern day eco-pirate out there on the high seas challenging injustice. Out near Antarctica it is probably less romantic as the Japanese whaling fleet led by the Nisshin Maru plays a game of cat-and-mouse with its pursuers. Only its pursuers are not working together. Their tactics are vastly different. Greenpeace is committed to a non-violent policy and this limits them to becoming a giant obstacle to the whalers. It’s traditionally been quite effective. The SSCS is aggressive in its tactics, but this campaign has seen the rather unusual tactic of delivering a letter to a ship captain. The two nautical postmen were promptly taken hostage. This led to the so-called eco-terrorist returning the slur to the whalers. This is an overly simplified account of events, but this is a story making mainstream news headlines and so it is not necessary to ‘spread the word’. Only the events are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. They are making headlines because Greenpeace and the SSCS are clearly somewhat hostile to one another — although it is obvious the real hostility is reserved for the whalers.

Among the problems faced by the SSCS in tracking the whaling fleet is that Greenpeace refuse to share the fleets coordinates. Greenpeace is worried about the SSCS employing violent tactics as it has done in the past. This to Greenpeace endangers the crew and clearly breeches the non-violent approach. A complex situation since it means working against an organization with the same fundamental aim. According to Watson this was not all that problematic as ‘sources’ within Greenpeace sympathetic to his mission simply passed on the coordinates. Watson is notoriously critical of Greenpeace implying that their cozy establishment status means they simply provide a guilt-ridden middle class with “special ecological dispensation.” (Guardian). And one suspects that there might just be something in that.

So we need to ask whether Greenpeace has gotten too soft or Watson gone too far. On the current chase Watson had this to say about how far he was willing to go: “We did not come to protest. This is an international policing act. We do not intend to hurt anyone…” What is interesting here is that for Watson this is policing. Watson views the whaling as an illegal act and realizing that nobody is responding he wants to enforce the law. It’s clear that there are numerous issues thrown at us here. For one we all know that laws depend on enforcement or else they are meaningless. This allows us to suggest that Watson is logically correct, but does not account for the legitimacy of him enforcing the law — even in the vaguely defined laws of often highly disputed international waters. The current events taking place in Australian waters have prompted a weak response on the part of the Australian government who seem unwilling to upset their allies. That is a story we are all familiar with. It is even more complicated with laws surrounding animal rights. Is it ethical to place the whale over the safety of the whaling crew as Watson is prone to do? For Watson it is an emphatic yes if we believe, as he does, that animals are equal to humans. Oddly, Watson has been known to suggest that the worm is worth more than the human. Once again it’s the possibility of going too far. It’s not the best way to endear people to your cause whether it’s true or not.

Then we have the case of the broader environment. Does it deserve rights?

We know some people have sought to extend rights to the environment, and this depends on seeing the environment as a being — that is ontologically. There are famous arguments for precisely this notion such as James Lovelock’s interpretation of the Earth as Gaia, a self-regulating system that keeps the conditions for life just about right. Does this imply Gaia is sentient? It’s not something we can answer easily, but it shows how little we engage with the important philosophical questions that might help us surpass our default anthropological position. It is important because it tells us what we need to practice. In this case should there be eco-police and if so where should they be drawn from? Is it ethical to expect activists to take the entire burden or should a government enforce these laws?

What is really at work here is the issue of consent and whether one thinks Watson has a right to police on behalf of the whales. For Watson the sheer scale of environmental destruction warrants ‘extreme’ behavior. Consent is given by the ineptitude of the human species to look after its fellow beings. The choice for Watson is clear-cut. Either you want to become an eco-warrior or you remain a parasite (EcoAction). The problem is that this is not exactly the healthiest environment to construct a collective response on the part of humanity. It is alienating. To broadly effect change you need to have more than a small, but dedicated band of eco-warriors. You need ecological consciousness to be the standard, the norm. We know that people do not respond to extreme demands (and this is surely where the eco-terrorist label finds its sustenance). Take the population issue as it arises in environmentalism. Watson is consistently denounced for demanding that the human population be culled to below a billion in order for the earth to sustain itself (Business and Media).

Watson takes a lot of flak for this, but it’s also the position of esteemed biologists such as James Lovelock, of Gaia fame. The difference is that Lovelock is firmly established as a thinker who sometimes espouses radical beliefs, but posits considered solutions on how to resolve them. Lovelock’s approach seems to allay the fears of mainstream readers and thinkers. Compare this to the hysterical reaction to Watson’s claims and you discover the power of how a message is tailored. People do not respond well to extreme demands made upon them and are inclined to skepticism when a crisis, in this case a crisis in biodiversity, is overplayed. Nor do words such as policing and warrior seem to fit in with the role being asked of us. The word best suited to this state of play is conservationist, and it has the merits of appealing across broad political spectrums as well as implying the cause is noble and not extreme — even if extreme measures are required.

And yet there is no denying that Paul Watson is a committed environmentalist who has an enviable and broad-reaching understanding of the natural world. His concerns are our concerns and yet we do not join him or emulate him. There is a disparity at work here, and it’s a deeper disparity than many of us are willing to admit. Is ramming a whaling ship the correct response to ecocide? Or do we simply follow the whaling ship as Greenpeace does in order to get between them and the whales? These are all questions we need to mull over, but for now it’s important to note, and to celebrate, that despite differences the anti-whaling campaigners have managed to stop any whales being killed for close to a week now.

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  • Posted on Jan. 19, 2008. Listed in:

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