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What Happened to the Radical Environmental Movement?

In collaboration with undergraduate Grace Gold, SPA Associate Professor Thomas Zeitzoff published an article on attitudes towards cyber tactics in eco-activism.

Thomas Zeitzoff & Grace Gold

SPA’s Peace and Violence Research Lab (PVRL) awards up to eight fellowships per year to undergraduate students with an interest in conducting scholarly research on political violence. Fellows receive a $3,000 stipend and work closely with a faculty mentor to develop research projects, present at conferences, and work towards a publication. 

In January 2024, one of these faculty-student collaborations yielded magic. SPA Associate Professor Thomas Zeitzoff, who co-directs the Lab with Professor Joe Young, published an article with Grace Gold, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government from AU in 2023: “Cyber and Contentious Politics: Evidence from the US Radical Environmental Movement,” appeared in January 2024 in the top-ranked Journal of Peace Research.

“Working with Dr. Zeitzoff was such an invaluable experience,” Gold said. “Learning from someone who is so knowledgeable in this field, in research processes, and in tactics (around political violence) generally was invaluable to both my academic and my future professional career.”

The piece examines public attitudes towards various tactics deployed by activists in the radical environmental movement, as well as insights from the activists themselves. Zeitzoff had long wondered about a strange slump in radical environmental activism.

“Before 9/11, radical environmentalists and animal rights activists, so-called ‘ecoterrorists,’ were considered the number one domestic terror threat,” said Zeitzoff. “But then, by the end of the decade, they'd gone away. This was puzzling, especially given the threat from climate change. What happened—where did all the radical environmentalists go?”

In 2021, when hackers disabled the Colonial Pipeline in the mid-Atlantic, he saw an opportunity to shine light on this mystery.

“A lot of environmental activists had been wanting to target fossil fuel infrastructure,” he explained. “They didn't, in fact, hack the pipeline itself; they took down some of the servers and payroll systems with a ransomware attack. But it definitely had this really big knock-on effect, including long lines at gas stations.”

Zeitzoff was organizing these thoughts into a book project when Gold joined the Lab, and her interest in policy and the environment signaled a valuable partner. The pair’s survey experiment found that Americans are more likely to support cyber-based tactics than property destruction or physical sabotage. Further, they discovered, anti-technology sentiment and perceived threat from climate change can affect levels of support for such actions. The authors followed up the survey with qualitative interview data from experts and current and former activists, to better understand the role of new technology and tactics in the broader radical environmental movement.

“It's something that many [activists] had thought about,” Zeitzoff said. “’Why haven't we turned to hacking more?’ . . .  Activists hold a negative view, in some respects, of technology, social media, and other parts of hacker culture. Many activists join the radical environmental movement because they love nature, not necessarily because they love tech or are in the ‘hacker lifestyle.’"

Further, he continued, digital footprints mean a higher likelihood of being caught, and prison sentences are stiff. 

“I thought it was an interesting take: even though cyber tactics are an available tool, it's not as easy as we think,” he said. “You have to have the right people (skilled hackers), and you have to be willing to deal with the potential consequences (prison sentences).”

Similarly, Zeitzoff, who has also interviewed those involved in political violence in a variety of countries, found that activists involved in the radical environmental movement are among the most cautious he has ever interviewed. He mentioned the Green Scare of the early 2000s, and Operation Backfire, the interagency taskforce that went after the Earth Liberation Front.

“There was a series of very high-profile trials,” he said. “People were charged with terrorism and faced really long prison sentences for what those in the activist community would call vandalism or property destruction. . . There is always a cat-and-mouse game between activists, or people who seek to challenge the incumbent government, and the government's ability to surveil, find, and come at them. Fifteen years ago, hackers could get into [systems easily], and the government was at its wit's end. That has changed as security has gotten better and prison sentences have stiffened.”

Now activists are at their wit’s end as well, as the threat from climate change mounts.

“Last summer much of the East Coast was blanketed by wildfire smoke,” said Zeitzoff, “and there's pretty good evidence that the increasing intensity was caused by climate change. As these effects become more apparent and more critical, there's increasing pressure on activists to consider more intense steps.”

He referenced the book by Andreas Malm, the Swedish climate activist, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (also a film), which garnered an intelligence warning from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“It basically argues for mass civil disobedience and sabotage against fossil fuel infrastructure, set against a slick Ocean's Eleven-style thriller. I think that's a pretty severe step, but there's a big debate within the radical eco-activist community. Is civil disobedience enough? If not, then what are the next steps?”

Environment activists, he continued, occupy many bands of the political spectrum. Popular perception is that environmental activists tend to skew to the left. Yet many of the activists Zeitzoff interviewed believe that conservatives won’t be able to deny climate change forever. For the article, he interviewed activists who had participated in the early days of the radical environmental movement in the 70s and found many idiosyncratic views.

“I would say there's nothing inherently left wing about environmentalism,” he said. “Many older eco-activists are anti-immigration and/or survivalist. Some don't even call themselves environmentalists. They call themselves conservationists. There’s even a smaller strand who self-identify as ecofascists, who blame nonwhites for the planet’s overpopulation and related environmental strain.”

Zeitzoff had much to say about Gold’s contributions, including much of the survey coding.

“Grace is amazing,” he said. “She picked up a lot of the nuance within the movement, and she was very excited about the research. She now does a lot of polling and focus group work on her job, and she said she realized through this research that that's what she liked.”

The Peace and Violence Research Lab has ushered many SPA students to critical careers in research and practice. Several alumni work for the U.S. State Department; others have gone on to study at top law schools, PhD programs, and one has even become a professor. Gold now works as a senior analyst in the research department of a D.C. public affairs firm, managing polling, holding focus groups, and informing strategy based on those inputs.

“I largely credit the experience SPA and this research experience gave me to be able to gain the skills for this career path,” Gold shared. “SPA gives students so many incredible opportunities to get involved in research, inside and outside the classroom. I would definitely recommend talking to your professors about what they are currently working on and how they found that area of interest.”

For more information about the Peace and Violence Research Lab, visit