When James J. Lee marched into the Discovery Channel’s headquarters with a gun, possible explosives and a list of demands, he turned the world’s attention to Silver Spring, Md., and to the hostages he took. As the television cameras raced to the busy Washington, D.C., suburb, many reporters who learned of Lee’s environmental beliefs began focusing on environmental extremism.   

Lee is no stranger to the Discovery Channel. Reports show that he was known for leading protests in front of the television station’s building. He was even arrested for protesting there. Before he was shot and his hostages rescued, his demands for releasing them included that “the Discovery Channel stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants,” and that the television station take several actions to stop global warming. While Lee’s actions on Wednesday make him the world’s most notorious environmental extremist of current times, he is hardly the first person or organization to take extreme actions in the name of the environment.

Extreme environmentalism can take many forms. Sometimes it is characterized as little more than organized pranks, but many times it can be extremely dangerous. The practice of tree spiking, which is when someone hammers a metal or ceramic rod into a tree trunk, became a felony in the United States in 1988. The year before, mill worker George Alexander was nearly decapitated when a tree-spike shattered his saw blade at a mill in northern California. Tree spiking had become the method of choice for many anti-logging activists in New Zealand, though no organization there has ever claimed to endorse the practice.  

Whaling is often the target of environmental extremism. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society prides itself on taking “direct action” against whalers. These actions have included scuttling whaling vessels, ramming vessels with their own boats, using laser pointers to temporarily blind whalers, throwing butyric acid on to whaling ships and destroying whale-killing drift nets. According to reports, the group proudly states, “they have been responsible for the sinking of 10 whaling ships and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of equipment.” The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was the first group mentioned in an FBI report on eco-terrorism. 

In 2008, a group called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) took responsibility for setting a series of fires in the suburbs north of Seattle. ELF allegedly set the fires, which destroyed luxury homes, as part of an ongoing protest that the new subdivision would damage nearby Bear Creek. It was not the first time in the news for the loosely organized group. Among other notable attacks is a 2003 rampage in which the group was involved in causing an estimated $50 million worth of damage after setting ablaze a housing complex under construction near San Diego. The same year, ELF was connected to a series of California fires involving Hummers and Chevy Tahoes.

While arson, tree spiking, and some of the tactics of the Sea Shepherd Society are regarded as the most dangerous flavors of environmental extremism, the term can also be applied to people who simply leave civilization to be in the wild. Unfortunately, it seems James J. Lee followed more closely in the footsteps of recluse Unabomber Ted Kaczynski than the steps of peaceful philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

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