If a Tree Falls: a Story of the Earth Liberation Front

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reviewed by Louis Proyect
The Unrepentant Marxist, June 21, 2011

If a Tree Falls: a Story of the Earth Liberation Front is a powerful documentary on what the ruling elite have dubbed eco-terrorists. After you have finished watching it, you will wonder who should be on trial, the mostly young and politically naïve activists who were responsible for some millions of dollars in damages but no loss of life. Or the lumber magnates who are busily at work cutting down the remaining 5 percent of old-growth forests—not to speak of the oil company executives who brought you the Gulf of Mexico spill. Their drive for profit threatens the future of all humanity while the ELF arsonists were guilty of little more than throwing a monkey wrench into a destructive system.

Ironically, the notion of throwing a monkey wrench into the system was the subject of arguably one of the first “deep ecology” novels, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey that was published in 1975. The wiki on the novel states:

The book may have been the inspiration for Dave Foreman’s and Mike Roselle’s creation of Earth First!, a direct action environmental organization that often advocates much of the minor vandalism depicted in the book. Many scenes of vandalism and ecologically-motivated mayhem, including a billboard burning at the beginning of the book and the use of caltrops to elude pursuing police, are presented in sufficient detail as to form a skeletal how-to for would-be saboteurs. This has influenced the Earth Liberation Front.

Life, alas, is far more complicated than fiction, in which plucky heroes triumph over evil. In a novel, a well placed firebomb might discourage a corporate despoiler but in the real world, the businessmen will pay for the damages with insurance and plunge ahead, making sure to make an amalgam between the underground activists and those who are using mass action to protect the environment.

As might be expected, the ELF activists all started out as mass action organizers but after demonstrations and rallies failed to achieve their goals, they decided to “escalate” their tactics. Although the film does not mention the SDS Weathermen, the ELF followed their example carefully, making sure especially that their targets were attacked in the wee hours of the morning when they were unoccupied.

Whether it was an seemingly unending war in Vietnam or the nonstop assault on old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, the frustration and anger of young committed activists soon evolved into a form of direct action that was based more on the heart than the head.

The primary subject of “If a Tree Falls” is Daniel McGowan, who was a 32 year old former ELF member facing life in prison, when filming began 5 years ago. At the time, McGowan was under house arrest and deeply stressed out about what was in store. Other members of his cell (the ELF was a decentralized network) had turned states evidence against Daniel and three other of his comrades who were reluctant to become finks themselves.

McGowan is about the least likely “eco-terrorist” you are going to run into. The son of a NYC cop, he grew up on Rockaway Beach, a Queens neighborhood close to the Atlantic Ocean that I have been visiting during the summer for 30 years now. It consists of tidy bungalows, nearly half of which have American flags on the porch or front lawn. McGowan attended Catholic school as a teen and became a track star. In college, he majored in business administration. After graduating, he took a job with Burson Marsteller, a powerful PR firm that typically did work for Phillip Morris.

Despite the seeming normalcy, McGowan was an ardent environmentalist going so far as a young boy to strip the paper wrapping from tin cans in the family pantry so they could be recycled.

Eventually, he started hanging out at Wetlands, a Tribeca club that was also an environmentalism resource center. From there, he made the contacts that would lead him out to Oregon, a hotbed of activism.

And within that state, Eugene was the nerve center. All of the ELF activists got started as aboveground activists but police brutality, corporate resistance to their demands, and their own frustration pushed them over the edge. It is not hard to understand what made them so desperate. The Oregon cops were about as brutal as one can imagine, using pepper spray as a first resort against peaceful demonstrators.

The documentary includes footage of the 1999 Seattle protests where many of these activists were transitioning into black block type tactics, a symptom of their pessimism about mass actions achieving any kind of breakthrough. Speaking as someone who has been ferociously critical of this kind of adventurism ever since 1999, If a Tree Falls made me empathize with such activists, a sure sign of the director’s ability to draw out his subject’s humanity.

The ELF was effectively disbanded long before Daniel and his comrades were arrested. One action that targeted a nursery experimenting with genetic modification on behalf of the timber industry was based on false information. The experiments had nothing to do with the timber industry and were using standard hybrid techniques of the sort that existed in the 19th century.

Remorse over a senseless act of arson and a general feeling that they were involved in an exercise even more futile than mass protests led Daniel and the others to dissolve their cell and move on with their lives.

He moved back to New York, got married, and began working at a nonprofit group that defended battered women. Just by coincidence, the woman who McGowan reported to was married to Marshall Curry, the film’s director. In the press notes, Curry found himself intrigued by the contrast between McGowan’s background and manner—enough to convince him to spend four years filming. He says:

How had someone like him found himself facing life in prison for terrorism? Was it accurate to use the word “terrorism” to describe property destruction in which no one was hurt? What was this shadowy group, the ELF? How had it formed and why? What could make someone decide that arson was a reasonable response to environmental problems? Sam Cullman (Cinematographer/Co-director) and I decided to find out.

At first we thought it might be a short film, but the more we dug in, the more interesting it became. There’s a saying that the deeper you go, the muddier the water gets, and I think this was true for us.

Everywhere we looked, our expectations were challenged. Characters said the opposite of what we expected. People who we thought might be fanatical—on one on side or the other—turned out to be thoughtful. Things we thought would be clear, were actually quite complex. And there were no easy heroes or villains.

I would include myself as someone whose “expectations were challenged”. In a year in which Hollywood blockbusters like The Green Lantern compete with each other for escapist stupidity, it is gratifying to see a bumper crop of socially committed and intelligent documentaries. Among them, If a Tree Falls is at the top. It opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and should not be missed.