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Environmental militancy is alive and thriving in the US. Greenpeace protests nuclear weapons on naval vessels

Staging a sit-in in trees. Rescuing whales from harpooners. Blocking bulldozers in the rain forests. Are these kinds of environmental campaigns - in which protesters are willing to risk arrest or even bodily injury - on the rise? At a time when mainstream environmental groups for the most part have moved out of the woods and into Washington offices, environmental militancy emerged alive and thriving this week in northern California.

In one incident Thursday, Greenpeace activists scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl ``the world's largest banner'' in protest of the deployment of nuclear weapons at sea.

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The group, in continuing its 1-year-long Nuclear Free Seas campaign worldwide, says one-third of the global nuclear arsenal is based aboard the nuclear navies of the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China.

In addition, Earth First!, one of the most radical movements on the environmental spectrum, is ``mobilizing'' to revive its tree-sitting tactics over the weekend. Supporters say they will act if the state today approves timber-harvest plans in Humboldt County, farther north, which is covered in redwoods.

To some observers, such groups are comprised of people who dare to act on the courage of their convictions. To others, they are a bunch of crazy leftists who have no respect for the concept of property ownership, who blame capitalism for environmental problems, and who occasionally will resort to potentially dangerous sabotage.

``The people who are involved in this action have carefully considered what they are doing,'' Greenpeace spokeswoman Erika Rosenthal says of Thursday's protest. ``It boils down to an act of conscience.''

Direct-action campaigns like this one - part media stunt and part act of conscience - take the environmental movement back to its roots, some activists say.

They have become disillusioned with other environmental groups, which they say put too much emphasis on lobbying Congress, cutting deals, filing lawsuits, and negotiating legislation.

``There's very little room for compromise today,'' says sociologist Bill Devall of Humboldt State University. Co-author of ``Deep Ecology,'' a book that enthusiasts say has sparked a new ecological activism, Professor Devall says Earth's ozone and its tropical rain forests ``are not special interests'' that can be negotiated.

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He says people are increasingly aware that government institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Navy are not responding to letter-writing campaigns, congressional testimony, or well-documented reports and research.

``So people are wanting to say with their bodies what they've been saying with their minds and haven't been listened to,'' he says. ``That's why we saw 50,000 people marching last month'' at the joint annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in West Berlin - a protest directed at economic policies that environmentalists say is forcing third-world countries to raze rain forests to pay off debt.

Some leaders in the environmental community see a struggle emerging for the hearts and minds of Americans, as rising public concern about the ozone ``hole'' and its effect on world weather prompts renewed citizen interest in the environmental movement. Environmental groups across the spectrum say they are seeing an increased interest by the public in their activities. The actual number of militant events staged by environmentalists is difficult to gauge though.

On one side are relatively new direct-action organizations such as Greenpeace, one of the largest environmental groups with 2.5 million supporters worldwide and a $27.5 million budget.

On the other are the wily old-timers, such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, which have moved from direct confrontation to negotiation - sometimes even forging alliances with industries targeted by the direct-action groups.

The environmental movement must do more than simply staging media events, says Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund. ``It's time we started proposing some solutions to these difficult problems.'' The EDF hires PhD economists and other highly trained experts ``so we can help people know what to say `yes' to,'' he says.

Both sides claim their tactics are the most effective.

EDF, for instance, cites the abandoned plans of two California utility companies to build 10 new coal-fired and nuclear power plants in the state. Alternatives proposed by EDF spared the environment from potentially devastating pollution and saved rate payers millions of dollars, he says.

But Greenpeace, too, points to results from its direct-action campaigns, such as stopping the slaughter of harp seal pups off Newfoundland and halting most commercial whaling. The goal of its Nuclear Free Seas campaign is ``to rid the oceans of nuclear weapons,'' Ms. Rosenthal says. ``But, obviously, it would be progress if sea-launched missiles and other sea-based nuclear weapons were added to the [US-Soviet] arms talks, because right now they're not even on the agenda.''

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