NEW YORK—The United States should not build housing. Whole neighborhoods in places like Chicago and Dayton and Oakland and Newark and Memphis are dominated by abandoned houses and apartment buildings. Ten percent of our national housing stock—more than 13 million homes, enough to put roofs over the homeless three times over—are vacant year-round. So why do we let developers bulldoze fields and forests to put up soulless monstrosities?
Several "model houses" at a development bearing the typically atrocious name of "Quinn's Crossing at Yarrowbay Communities" at the edge of Seattle's creeping suburban sprawl went up in flames, apparently torched by radical environmentalists. I had two reactions. First, I was reminded of my wonder that such things happen so infrequently.
Then I laughed. I wasn't alone. Time magazine bemoaned "a notable lack of sympathy for the fate of the homes" among residents of Washington state.
Quinn's Crossing, says its Web site, was "dedicated to the ethos of putting the earth first." In this case, putting Mother Earth "first" led the developers in "energy efficient" 4,500-square-feet McMansions. "The houses are out in the middle of nowhere, on land that used to be occupied by beaver dams and environmentally sensitive wetlands; the site sits at the headwaters of Bear Creek, where endangered chinook salmon spawn," reported Erica C. Barnett for the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger. "The houses, and their polluting septic systems, also sit atop an aquifer, which provides drinking water for the area's Cross Valley Water District."
Four thousand five hundred square feet? My last Manhattan apartment had 725. Visitors (New Yorkers, most of whom live in even tighter quarters) cooed over how big it was. The house in which I grew up had 1,000; it was designed for a family of four.
What galled the Earth Liberation Front was the developers' attempt to pass off self-indulgent, gargantuan McMansions as ecologically friendly. "The builders heavily promoted the 'built-green' concept and pointed out that the homes were smaller than the 10,000-square-foot houses on previous Street of Dreams tours," reported The Los Angeles Times.
Barnett's story asked: "Were the terrorists right?" She noted: "An energy-efficient mansion will never use less energy than even a large urban apartment."
Right or wrong, they're not terrorists.
The feds say they are. They call ELF, the loose-knit "group" that took responsibility for the blazes in unincorporated Snohomish County, the biggest threat to mom, freedom, apple pie and three-minute pop songs since the Soviet Union closed shop. Six months before 9/11, shortly before the famous "Bin Laden Wants to Kick Our Ass Six Ways to Sunday" memo, the FBI went so far as to list the ELF as a federally designated terrorist organization. Like al Qaida.
Terrorism—you can look it up—involves killing people. Hijacking a plane and flying it into a building is terrorism. Destroying property—property that, for the most part, made the world a worse place—is not.
ELF's goal of "inflict[ing] maximum economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment" has inspired people to set fire to SUVs at a New Mexico car dealership, Hummers in California, and a Vail ski lodge whose construction threatened the lynx, an endangered species. Damage to the Colorado ski project amounted to $12 million.
ELF members are vandals. They're arsonists. But they aren't terrorists.
ELF demands that its adherents "take all necessary precautions against harming any animal—human and non-human." Although it could happen someday, no one has ever been killed or hurt in an ELF action. Equating the burning of a Hummer to blowing up a child exposes our society's grotesque overemphasis on the "right" of property owners to do whatever they want. The word "eco-terrorism" is an insult to the human victims of real terrorism, including those of 9/11.
The closest ELF's critics come to landing a punch is pointing out that fires send crud into the atmosphere. "This is releasing more carbon into the air than they ever would have by building the houses," the listing agent for one of the destroyed "rural cluster development" houses told The New York Times. Newsweek asked: "If their cause is to save the environment, how does burning houses, and thereby releasing carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, help achieve that goal?"
Eye-roll alert: A house fire releases air pollution once. A family living in a house does it day after day for decades. Anyway, why are builders making houses out of toxins?
Property-rights extremists raised the same point after ELF set fire to 20 Hummer H2s at a California car dealership in 2004.
"There's a lot more pollutants from the fire than the vehicles would pollute during their lifetime," said the West Covina fire marshal. Even if that were true, he forgot where those gas guzzlers would have eventually ended up: in landfills, their nasty chemicals seeping into the ground.
"Think of all the resources those fires wasted," moaned Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large. He explained that lawful means—petitions, politely worded letters to the editor, speaking at public hearings—are the proper way to take a stand against the destruction of the environment. "The development where this latest arson took place, situated atop the area's water supply, has been challenged by other groups, using negotiation and the law," he says approvingly. That's true. The local zoning board heard from hundreds of opponents of Quinn's Crossing before voting, 4 to 1, in favor.
Challenged, yes. But not successfully.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.