There ain’t nothing like a homegrown terror scare to get the juices flowing, and yesterday’s “Earth Liberation Front” extortion threat had everything you could ask for — shadowy groups, sinister warnings, police mobilisation. Even better it was locally produced and carbon neutral.

The only trouble was it was ninety per cent recyclable male cow gardening product.

To recap: it was revealed on Sunday that a letter had been delivered to the house of Hazelwood power station supremo Graeme York, purportedly from the Earth Liberation Front holding him responsible for the “dirtiest power station in Australia and the most polluting in the industrialised world”, and obliquely threatening damage against his personal property as a result.

Scary stuff. Only trouble is the Earth Liberation Front doesn’t exist.

Oh there is — or was — an organised group called the Earth Liberation Front. Several of them in fact, one founded in Brighton England in the early 1990s, another in Eugene Oregon a bit later, with others — some with variant names like the Canadian Earth Liberation Army — springing up in different “alt” cities such as Vancouver. The ELFs originated from the broader Earth First movement, a decentred green anarchist movement of the 1980s with a broad range of views about the limits of civil disobedience and direct action.

Some believed that mild property damage — gluing-up locks, letting down tyres, etc — was the limit, others believed that a more forceful approach, up to and including arson of legit green targets, such as forestry equipment, skimobiles etc, was possible.

It was this latter groups that became ELF, principally in the US Pacific Northwest.

Yet the whole point of such anarchist groups is to be decentred, to have no proprietorial interest over who adopts the name. The idea that Melbourne ELF is being run from some biodegradable bunker beneath a mungbean café in Portland is a fantasy. Melbourne ELF is probably one share squat of 20-year-olds, currently scoping the media and watching with delight as a single printed out letter sends the entire energy-political complex into paroxysms of fear and loathing.

Indeed, the fuss serves various parties — the police, who want a continuous state of low-level threat to justify increased resources, the politicians seeking to increasingly criminalise green protest around dirty energy, the energy companies who want the security for their private activity to be paid for by the taxpayer and put on a quasi-military footing — and a small number of anarchist groups who want to project power by using the strength of the establishment against itself.

This is an old trick, called spectrality, after the beginning of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto : “there is a spectre haunting Europe … the spectre of communism”.

There wasn’t of course. There were a bunch of motley groups meeting in pubs across Europe. They gained power and prestige by convincing the authorities to rate them as a real threat to the established order, and thus threw their shadow across the continent.

So well played Squat No.23, whoever you are — the authorities did everything that could be expected of them.

If indeed there is even a green anarchist group behind this. Take a look at the text of the letter:

Dear Graeme, As the Chief Executive Officer of Hazelwood power station, you are responsible for the dirtiest power station in Australia and the most polluting in the industrialised world.

You are causing irreversible environmental destruction which will go on to harm not only those living on the planet today, but your children’s children too.

We hold you personally accountable for this assault against our Earth. We do not take lightly to the perpetual destruction of our land-base for the selfish and short-term objective of fattening your bank account.

That doesn’t sound like ELF-style anarchists to me. The language is too Latinate, too procedural. Green anarchism tends to use a blunter language, deliberately kept simpler and more aggressive, to project conflict and contestation. Take this example from the North American ELF “press office”, a clearing-house website, by a Mexican green anarchist group:

We know that the disgusting Carlos Slim is collaborating with the state to spy on telephone conversations of different activists, that he is an accomplice of the government intercepting emails from different people who the authorities consider dangerous so that they will be arrested and even more to criminalize any struggle in Mexico; that is why Telmex is being fought through economic sabotage and this will continue.

For that same reason we have easily sabotaged 30 phones; the actions are increasing. A revolutionary greeting to the eco-saboteurs.

Without wanting to dob anyone in I would guess that Melbourne ELF is a pure hoax by people who haven’t taken on the “green anarchist life” to any degree.

Alternatively, it may be an inside job. For months now, NSW and Victorian governments have been making loud noises about the increasing criminalisations of civil disobedience directed against power stations — upping the ante from criminal trespass and damage to specifically-tailored laws adding a premium of up to five years prison for disrupting energy supply. These laws could be applied even when “disrupting energy supply” consists merely of a sit-down protest in an energy company’s office foyer.

In the US, several ELF activists have received 20-year sentences for crimes such as torching snowmobiles — the extra years on the sentence (which would usually be 5-10) because the acts are defined as “terrorist”, even though no greater damage is done, than other numerous attacks attributed to rural booze and high spirits. As Jeff Sparrow noted here on the assassination of Dr George Tiller, what gets defined as simple crime or something worse, is a purely political judgement.

In that light, review state minister Peter Batchelor’s weird comment about seeing if “we didn’t need new laws to deal with this sort of thing”. Well, we already have these laws — it’s called “threats and menaces”. Convenient to have something like this appear just as the “energy security” debate hots up.

Am I suggesting that Victorian government labs cooked up a secret pseudo-Melbourne ELF letter? I am emphatically not. I am suggesting it’s possible that someone from the Labor Right or associated swamplands is doing a freelance provocation — and the language of the letter suggests to me that they are inept at hiding their own background in the political mainstream.

Actually, the original translation of the Communist Manifesto had not a spectre, but “a horrible hobgoblin” haunting Europe. Elves, hobgoblins, it’s all the same in the gathering twilight…

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now