Institute for Social Ecology

Overview

So you’re a budding anarchist who wants a college degree, a violent “Earth Liberation Front” extremist craving the legitimacy that a Master’s degree would bring, or maybe just a good old-fashioned socialist with horizons that need broadening. Where can you turn? The Institute for Social Ecology (ISE), self-described as “both an educational and an activist organization,” is waiting for you.

ISE began in 1974 at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, as the brainchild of Daniel Chodorkoff, a cultural anthropologist, and Murray Bookchin, a social theorist. The Institute has since moved into its own facilities less than two miles away, and is no longer operated by Goddard. While ISE is not an accredited university, it maintains cooperative agreements with Goddard and with nearby Burlington College. Institute attendees can earn a legitimate Master’s degree (in “Social Ecology”) from the former, or a B.A. from the latter. Most students participate in mandatory summer sessions and then continue their work via a distance-learning program.

A careful look at the “coursework” offered at the Institute raises some serious red flags. In 2002, Institute for Social Ecology attendees will study “The Anarchist Tradition,” “Radical Agriculture,” “Alternatives to Capitalism,” and something called “Biotechnology, Agriculture, & Racism.” Former Earth Liberation Front spokesperson Craig Rosebraugh chose ISE when he decided to enroll in a Master’s degree program. The Portland Oregonian noted on September 8, 2001, that Rosebraugh’s proposed thesis already has a title: “Rethinking Nonviolence: Arguing for the Legitimacy of Armed Struggle.” As columnist Dave Barry might say, we’re not making this up.

In recent years, the Institute has developed an unofficial specialty in anti-biotech scare tactics and organized protests. The widely televised San Diego “biodevastation” protests surrounding the 2001 biotechnology conference there were orchestrated, organized, and promoted by Institute faculty members Brian Tokar, Chaia Heller, Brooke Lehman, and Arthur Foelsche. The same can be said for the 2000 “biodevastation” events in Boston and the earlier protests in Seattle (1999) and St. Louis (1998). The official web site for these activities, www.biodev.org, is registered to ISE faculty member Brian Tokar — the next event is scheduled for June 2002 in Toronto.

Among its “vehicles for social change,” ISE also runs an aggressive Biotechnology Project, whose main program is the administration of an activist group called NorthEast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (neRAGE). This group, created by Institute faculty members Brian Tokar and Arthur Foelsche, is part of a larger organizational structure that includes other “sister groups” as well: Down South RAGE in Memphis, Grain RAGE in Chicago, Northwest RAGE in Portland, Desert RAGE in Tucson, Bay Area RAGE in Berkeley, Monterey Bay RAGE in Santa Cruz, and others as well. These local anti-biotech activist cells are organized under an umbrella group called the Bioengineering Action Network (BAN).

On the BAN web site you can learn about the latest “actions” carried out against genetically improved food producers, farmers, and other segments of the biotech industry. These include deliberate uprooting of entire fields, as well as the firebombing of buildings and wholesale arson of biotech crops. The underground Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a group which the FBI classifies as a domestic terrorist organization, takes “credit” for some of these crimes. Others are left unclaimed, suggesting that responsibility lies with BAN’s regional member groups (or that the various RAGE groups and ELF are one and the same). BAN also distributes a how-to manual called “The Nighttime Gardening Guide,” which provides instructions on how to break into private greenhouses or climb fences, destroy biotech crops, and depart the scene without leaving any evidence behind.

NorthEast RAGE holds planning meetings at least three times each year, in a variety of New England cities and towns. One January 2000 meeting, held in Boston, was heavily advertised on activist Internet mailing lists. The email address listed as a “contact” person belonged to a Bridgewater State University (Mass.) professor named Detlev A. Koepke. Professor Koepke’s personal e-mail address is also listed on a Massachusetts Earth First! members list, distributed for “direct action” activities.

It’s surprising that the Institute for Social Ecology, a tax-exempt organization, has made no real effort to hide its association with Northeast RAGE, a group that openly engages in unlawful activity and openly associates itself with a group like the ultra-violent Earth First!. No other formal, incorporated organization has declared such an alliance with any of the other BAN subgroups.

Northeast RAGE’s recent “achievements” include the formation of a “people’s labeling brigade,” an ad hoc activist group that went through grocery stores in New England, applying permanent “biohazard” labels to products that are presumed to contain biotech ingredients. The group is also responsible for a current campaign to force dozens of Vermont towns to hold official town-meeting votes on proposed bans of genetically improved foods. This method of forcing voter initiatives on a small scale may seem like just a nuisance now, but Northeast RAGE’s stated goal is to expand the effort to a “statewide moratorium” in the near future. If a bunch of radicals can scare an entire state into banning biotech food, Vermont may be just the first domino to fall.

Blackeye

The “scholarship” that comes out of the Institute for Social Ecology can be typically found in fringe publications like Synthesis/Regeneration, Third World Resurgence, Wild Earth, Z Magazine, or the Earth First! Journal. While most people have never read these periodicals, they are followed closely by those who frequent the underbelly of the extreme anarchist, animal-rights, and environmental movements. Thomas Mosser probably never heard of any of these magazines, but his killer read at least one of them.

Mosser, a long time executive with the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller, was among the three people killed by Ted Kaczynski’s “Unabomber” terror campaign. He was fatally mail-bombed in 1994 (Kaczynski also injured 29 others before his 1996 capture). In an April 1995 letter to the New York Times, the then-anonymous radical took credit for Mosser’s killing, saying that “[a]mong other misdeeds, Burston-Marsteller [sic] helped Exxon clean up its public image after the Exxon Valdez incident.”

But as the Washington Post reported a year later, Burson-Marsteller “never worked for Exxon on the spill.” So just how did the Unabomber, the single most dangerous eco-terrorist in America’s history, construct the leap of logic that made Thomas Mosser a target?

The Post said out loud what many hard-core environmentalists would rather have kept quiet: Kaczynski got the idea from a paper written as part of a Master’s degree thesis by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, a Puerto Rican writer studying at the Institute for Social Ecology. The paper became an article which was published in 1994 by the Earth First! Journal, a publication which FBI investigators would later confirm was one of Kaczynski’s “favorite” periodicals.

Ruiz-Marrero has publicly denied any responsibility for influencing the Unabomber, and went on to join the editorial board at the Resource Center for the Americas. That organization’s official biography of Ruiz-Marrero shows that he is still a “research associate” with the Institute for Social Ecology.

Motivation

The Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) places alternating flavors of socialism and out-and-out anarchy at its philosophical center. Accordingly, these folks represent the far outside fringe of the American political landscape. Their protests against genetically improved foods are merely a symptom of a radical mindset clinging to utopian ideals of communal agriculture and economy. The world doesn’t work the way they would like. But that’s the reason for all the banner-waving, slogan-chanting, and similar tantrum-like behavior. Reality doesn’t get in the way of the Institute’s repeated calls for “revolution,” “food democracy,” and “alternatives to capitalism.”

ISE founder Murray Bookchin was a bona fide red diaper baby, and (philosophically speaking) his creation is very much a place where time stands still. It’s interesting, for instance, that modern-day communist Cuba is the one place where the Institute’s philosophies and ideals are most completely realized, and that nation is still living in the agricultural 1950s.

For all their sign-waving and organized protest, it’s ironic that neither the Institute nor even Brian Tokar, its most in-your-face spokesperson, seems to care one way or the other about whether biotech food is an appropriately applied technology, good science or bad. The NorthEast RAGE project, for instance (like its siblings in other geographic areas), is very light on scientific discourse and heavy on explosive rhetoric. But this makes perfect sense: the Institute for Social Ecology won’t fight the battle over biotech foods on the basis of science, but rather on the basis of its implied politics. For instance, Tokar attacks genetically improved foods as an example of “colonial and neocolonial domination,” but isn’t much equipped to talk competently about DNA. So, like his colleagues, when all else fails he falls back on the tired old clichés like “Frankenfoods” and rallies his followers to destroy the crops rather than debate the issues.

But what seems to matter most to the Institute and those who teach its tenets are the twin, vague causes of “revolution” and “resistance.” For them, anything that advances the global progress of capitalism is the enemy. So instead of welcoming the spread of investment capital to the Third World, ISE’s published literature focuses on “the evils of economic globalization” and “the long history of emancipatory struggles against capitalism.” Instead of applauding modern science’s ability to feed the world, its party line carps about “colonialism” and “systemic oppression and hierarchy.” The Institute’s sponsorship of NorthEast RAGE, at least, puts it firmly in the neo-Luddite camp. In short, neither anarchists nor socialists know much about feeding people, and ISE is chock full of both.