When saboteurs attacked a whale-rendering plant near Reykjavik, Iceland, last month - and sank two whaling vessels - they drew worldwide attention not only to their cause, but also to their provocative style of environmental activism. The Sea Shepherds Conservation Society - which sponsored the raid to highlight allegations of illegal whaling by Iceland - has rekindled a debate over environmentalists' tactics and strategy.
Acts of sabotage have increased in recent years as some activists repudiate working within established political and economic channels to save endangered species and halt environmental destruction, according to Paul Watson, founder of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Sea Shepherds.
``All through Canada in the pubs people were talking about Iceland's illegal whaling instead of about hockey, following the Reykjavik raid,'' Mr. Watson says.
As the measure of the Iceland mission's success, Watson claims Iceland's ability to engage in commercial whaling this year and next is jeopardized by damages to the whale-processing plant.
While the Sea Shepherds have garnered the recent publicity, they are just one of many groups of environmentalist activists, most based in the western United States, who embrace acts of sabotage - referred to as ``monkeywrenching.''
The movement's leaders inveigh against traditional environmental groups, which they accuse of being too passive, too bureaucratic, and too quick to compromise.
Watson founded the Sea Shepherds Conservation Society in 1977, after he was banished from Greenpeace, another Vancouver-originated environmental group. Watson's acrimonious departure from Greenpeace, of which he was a founding member, came after he swiped the club from the hands of a commercial seal hunter and threw it into the sea - an act that violated Greenpeace's code of behavior. The Greenpeace concept has spread to 15 countries, including the United States, but the groups do not necessarily use the same tactics or target the same environmental hazards.
``Violence doesn't work,'' said Greenpeace spokesman Alan Reichman. Greenpeace officials worry that their ability to achieve similar goals could be tarnished by the Sea Shepherds' brand of vigilantism. Mr. Reichman sees similarities between the French Secret Service sinking the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior that had gone to New Zealand last year to protest French nuclear testing and the Sea Shepherds' raid in Iceland.
``Those things happen when you believe you can act outside the bounds of international law,'' he says.
Such concerns don't phase the saboteurs, who are exasperated with the environmentalists' willingness to negotiate the size of clear-cut boundaries of a wilderness area while Earth's survival is in doubt, according to David Foreman, a Tucson, Ariz., publisher and point man for a disparate band of eco-activists claiming allegiance to Earth First!
The Earth First! philosophy is best represented in a book written by Mr. Foreman, titled ``Eco-defense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching.'' The book's title alludes to a 1975 Edward Abbey novel, ``The Monkeywrench Gang,'' which chronicles the adventures of a handful of guerrilla warriors who traveled the Southwest US pulling up survey stakes, ``decommissioning'' bulldozers, chopping down billboards, and plotting to blow up a dam.
These and similar activities outlined by Abbey and Foreman are put to practice by Earth First! adherents, whose battle cry is ``No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.''
The mainstream environmentalist approach is necessary, says Foreman, a former lobbyist with the Wilderness Society. But more dramatic actions are necessary to focus attention on the way in which industrial civilization is choking life from the planet, he says.
Such tactics as driving metal spikes into trees to destroy chainsaw blades are sure-fire attention grabbers and each news story about incidents of ``ecotage'' brings recruits to the movement, Foreman continues.
Foreman says that James Watt, the controversial former interior secretary, was the worst thing that could have happened to the Sierra Club, less for his land-use polices than for the Sierra Club's use of Mr. Watt's scare stories to recruit new members.
``Most of those members are soft,'' Foreman explains, and they've forced the Sierra Club to take a more cautious attitude toward environmental activism out of fear of alienating the membership.
The Sea Shepherds' next strike will be in the spring, when they sail from Seattle to the North Pacific Ocean.
They plan to ``go fishing'' for giant monofilament drift nets used by Japanese salmon fishermen and which environmentalists oppose because of their toll on sea mammals and birds.
Thousands of porpoises, seals, sea lions, and birds, attracted to the fish inside, become trapped in the nets and drown.
To date, Japan has refused to elimninate the nets.
So, the Sea Shepherds are constructing a shredder that will destroy the drift nets they manage to pull aboard their vessels.
``We hope to provoke an international incident,'' Watson says.