Operation Bite Back

Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness
by Dean Kuipers
295 pages, Bloomsbury, 2009

In Review

Rod Coronado’s most spectacular act of eco-sabotage occurred on the evening of November 8, 1986. Coronado and David Howitt, both about 20 years old and members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, sought to do nothing less than cripple Iceland’s whaling fleet and draw attention to countries flouting a global ban on the hunting of whales then in place. Camouflaged in dark rain gear and ski masks, they first destroyed the Hvalfjördur whaling station, smashing its computer control room, confiscating record books to prove that Iceland was still killing whales, and dumping expensive repair equipment into the fjord. They then set their sights on sinking two of Iceland’s four whalers. After making sure the boats were empty, the two men loosened the valves that regulated how much seawater was used to cool the engines, eventually filling the boats and sending them to the bottom of the harbor. The following day, after successfully fleeing to London, they read about their work in the newspaper. They caused more than $2 million worth of damage and, important to both men, harmed no one. As Dean Kuipers, author of Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness, recently told CounterPunch, “This action got a lot of accolades because it was a model of nonviolence.”

book cover thumbnail, Operation Bite Back: Ron Coronados war to save American wilderness

Six years later, Kuipers, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, met Coronado for the first time at a café in Venice Beach. Coronado was still working for the Sea Shepherd Society (he had first given them money when he was only 12 years old and skipped college to join the organization), but was wanted by the FBI and would soon disappear altogether, showing up unannounced to see Kuipers when he wanted to talk. Operation Bite Back, based on those conversations, tells the story of Coronado’s effort to destroy the fur industry by targeting research facilities and fur farms across the country.

If the book did nothing but recount Coronado’s string of arson attacks, it would be highly entertaining, as good as any first-rate adventure story. But Kuipers goes further, using Coronado’s story to trace the history of the radical environmental movement and explore the divisions – philosophical and tactical – that various forms of direct action have caused among eco-activists.

Those divisions have their roots in the uneasy alliance between the monkeywrenchers, exemplified by Dave Foreman, whom Kuipers describes as the “type of old-school white-guy Teddy Roosevelt-Gifford Pinchot conservationist who liked his wilderness camping with steak and whisky,” and the animal rights movement, inspired by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and more likely to be influenced by anarchist punk bands and veganism. It wasn’t just that the old guard was less invested in animal rights as a cause (Kuipers has seen Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, devour many a steak at Central American yacht clubs), but they also felt that animal rights activists were more concerned with what eco-philosopher Murray Bookchin called lifestyle anarchism. “Lifestyle anarchism,” Bookchin wrote in a 1995 essay, “takes flight from all meaningful social activism and a steadfast commitment to lasting and creative projects by dissolving into kicks, postmodernist nihilism, and a dizzying Nietzschean sense of elitist superiority.”

It would be unfair to characterize Coronado’s actions as mere kicks. He believed deeply in his crusade and that he was fighting for more than just an end to the fur industry. He maintained his commitment to nonviolence throughout, though many questioned whether it was simply luck that the fires he set never hurt anyone. Ultimately, even Coronado would distance himself from the methods he used. In an open letter to the environmental movement, written from a prison cell in Arizona, Coronado denounced direct action. “I still see the rationale for what I’ve done,” he wrote in 2006, “only no longer do I personally choose to represent the cause of peace and compassion in that way.”

Any discussion of Coronado’s legacy would be incomplete without assessing the impact of punitive counterterrorism measures on the environmental movement following the attacks of September 11. Even though no one has been killed or injured as a result of the direct action tactics of the radical environmental movement in the US, more than a dozen of Coronado’s colleagues are serving (or have served) prison terms for acts of eco-sabotage. The FBI considers ecoterrorism the number one domestic terrorism threat in the US, on a par with Al Qaeda, and the destruction of property alone can now bring with it charges of terrorism.

In such a perilous climate, one might reasonably ask whether Kuipers’ book will be the last chapter of the history of the radical environmental movement.

– Adam Federman

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