Q&A: Extreme Environmentalist on "Radical Change"

Inside Base Camp With Tom Foreman
April 22, 2003
From its inception, Earth Day has been about fostering respect for our
natural environment and accordingly, working to protect it. For some
folks, however, the slow quest for improvement is simply not enough, and
they have pledged themselves to radical change.

Leslie James Pickering is slightly built and angular at every joint. He seems awkward and almost shy when he enters my studio, but his quiet demeanor belies a militant view of the environment and humans. He has come to talk about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), perhaps the nation's most extreme environmentalist movement. According to the FBI, the ELF and organizations associated with it are suspected in 600 acts of violence— torching buildings at the Vail ski resort, burning SUVs in Oregon, striking a research center in Michigan and upscale homes in New York—in all, more than U.S. $45 million dollars in damage.

Yet, as he settles onto the stool opposite me, Pickering calls it all necessary.

Leslie James Pickering: Well, what the Earth Liberation Front is standing for, what they're defending, are the natural elements of the Earth that we all need to survive—our fresh air, our clean water, our healthy soil, our intact ecosystems. Without these, we all die, we all perish. So I'm representing a group that is fighting in self-defense, for preservation of our species, all species of life on Earth.

Tom Foreman: Many other people are fighting for those same things—they're just fighting in a different way than you are and they don't believe that your methods are fair, are rational, are reasonable. Doesn't that make you a tyrant because you're saying, "Our way is the only way?"

Leslie James Pickering: We're not saying that at all—education, and other forms of legal protest are necessary and have been going on for decades in this country. And what we're seeing is that that isn't gonna work on its own, it has never worked on its own. Every successful social justice movement throughout history has had an element of radical activism or radical engagement. We're not gonna stop at what the system tells us to stop at, because it's the system that's causing the problems that we're fighting against.

Tom Foreman: What is the system?

Leslie James Pickering: The system is the status quo, you know, the American lifestyle…

Tom Foreman: …everything that's not you?

Leslie James Pickering: (laughs) The establishment is the American dream, this capitalist society that we're living in, this imperialist society that we're living in, the way of life that we're taught to appreciate and aspire to. We (ELF) don't value property, and profits and economic gain over health or over the natural environment or over the natural world.

Tom Foreman: Many environmental groups hate you guys. They feel that you are doing tremendous damage.

Leslie James Pickering: Yeah, sure, and we've got objections with many of them as well. You know, we've seen decades of this (conventional environmentalism) and it's not working. Our environment's getting more and more destroyed.

Tom Foreman: The American public is more educated about the environment than they've ever been, more people identify themselves as environmentalists than ever have before, more people are involved in these issues. It's not fast enough for you?

Leslie James Pickering: It's not fast enough to protect the species that are dying, the hundred species that die every day. Now 40 percent of all rivers, according to the EPA, are too polluted for safe use.

Tom Foreman: So as a tactic, this idea of burning buildings is a great idea?

Leslie James Pickering: Oh, it's excellent.

Tom Foreman: Does it ever occur to you that you're at an age in your life when many people wouldn't trust you to manage the Wal-Mart—let alone decide the fate of the world? Do you ever say to yourself, "Maybe 15 years from now I'm gonna see this differently?"

Leslie James Pickering: Of course, of course, and that's just it, I'm not deciding the fate of the world at all.

Tom Foreman: But you're deciding the fate of people when you burn their places down?

Leslie James Pickering: What I'm saying is that I'm not letting you or anyone you represent decide the fate of my world.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

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