If a Tree Falls: Sustainability Film Series ’13
Written by Madeline Giefer
Last Thursday Sustainability Studies held a showing of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front at the Bell Museum of Natural History. This was the third installment of the Sustainability Film Series ‘13: Edge of Civilization, which features informative and artistic movies about some of the most pressing environmental crises of our time.
If a Tree Falls investigates the inception, work, and downfall of the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental extremist group of about a dozen members who held the nation’s attention during the late nineties and into the twenty-first century. Upon seeing and experiencing instances of police brutality on nonviolent environmental demonstrators, they began resorting to major acts of property damage to protest a wide array of what they perceived to be environmental crimes, from logging virgin forests to processing wild horses to genetic engineering. One of these protests targeted a genetics research lab here on the St. Paul Campus in 2002, and two people who attended the film recalled the morning they learned one of our own buildings had been destroyed.
A pivotal controversy surrounding the Earth Liberation Front is whether or not its actions constituted terrorism. They damaged millions of dollars worth of property in an attempt to evoke change through fear; however, they were careful not to harm human life and never injured a single person. Critics of the label “terrorism” say it should be reserved for instances in which people are killed or hurt, and it is unjust to put ELF members into the same category as the violent anti-American extremists that have dominated the media since 9/11. ELF leader Daniel McGowan was ultimately convicted as a terrorist and held in the Communications Management Unit of the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a prison established after 9/11 to contain terrorists. By striking coincidence, McGowan had been rearrested earlier on Thursday for exposing too much information about the prison in an article for the Huffington Post.
The film was followed by a frank discussion of ELF’s motives and actions, and whether or not it they should be considered terroristic. One attendee, who worked in the U of M building ELF destroyed in 2002, described the tragedy she saw the following morning when researchers realized they had lost the work of an entire career. She was strongly in favor of the punishments brought on McGowan and his partners, while others sympathized with their motives and objected to the terrorist conviction. As divisive and even troubling as the issue was, comments left afterward were overwhelmingly positive.
Next month Sustainability Studies will be hosting the final film in the series, The City Dark, an insightful look at the environmental and human impacts of an urban system in which the lights never turn off. Please join us at 7:00 pm on Thursday May 2 at the Bell Museum. The event is free for students and open to the public, and refreshments will be provided.