I recently wrote an article on the "deep ecology" movement and the recently deceased philosopher Arne Naess. While writing it became clear that the topic I had proposed for the article wasn't really what I was interested in. The American environmentalist Edward Abbey, whose novel The Monkey Wrench Gang first introduced me to deep environmentalism, is actually far more interesting to me than the slightly odd philosophy Naess proposed.
The the article I eventually submitted is more suited to the philosophy magazine it was written for. But this version of the article is far closer to what I find interesting.
“Abbey liked to say that he was born on a farm in Home, Pennsylvania. But he wasn’t. He was born in 1927 at a hospital in the town of Indiana, about a dozen miles away. He just liked the idea of an epic life beginning in a place called Home.”
-- Eric Schlosser
It wasn’t just Edward Abbey – novelist, essayist, environmentalist, anarchist – who was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania in January 1929. In a very real sense, radical environmentalism, the movement that encompasses direct action groups like Earth First as well as a branch of philosophy founded by Arne Naess, was born there too.
No single person has had a greater impact on the methods and the message of the radical environmentalists than Abbey did. And yet, just like Abbey wasn’t really born where he said he was, his contribution to the movement raises all sorts of questions about its origins and motivations that its sympathisers might prefer to keep under wraps. Many of the foundation myths of the radical environmental movement, in short, are just that – myths; every bit as phoney as the story of Abbey’s birth.
Abbey shot to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the publication of two of his books. Desert Solitaire (1968) is an edited version of the journals he wrote as a young man, working as a US park ranger in the Arches National Monument; The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) is a darkly comical novel charting the criminal escapades of a group of four environmental activists as they travel around the Western states, sabotaging everything in their path. The culmination of his novel is a conspiracy to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, thus draining Lake Powell and restoring the drowned canyon – something of a cause celebre in American environmentalism.
The methods of protest Abbey imagined in The Monkey Wrench Gang were and are hugely influential on the radical fringes of the environmental movement. Earth First, a group Abbey was close to (though he was by no means its leader) is the most obvious user of his imagery. Founded four years after the publication of his novel, Earth First quickly became famous for its direct action – acts of sabotage which they call “monkeywrenching”, many of which read like they came straight from Abbey’s book.
Moreover, the language and imagery used in Abbey’s novel pop up again and again when browsing Earth First’s literature. The organisation’s logo is a monkey wrench crossed with an axe; their journal features a how-to column on sabotage called “Dear Nedd Ludd” (Luddism is frequently and approvingly referred to by the characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang); Earth First’s publishing arm (the Abbzug Press) is named after one of the novel’s characters.
An even more radical splinter group, the Earth Liberation Front, which is classed as a terrorist group by the US government, has even taken to spraypainting “Hayduke Lives!” on walls at the scenes of their crimes. (Hayduke is the most radical of the characters in Abbey’s novel – and Hayduke Lives! is the title of the 1989 sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang).
Given Abbey’s friendship with Dave Foreman (Earth First’s founder) these parallels are perhaps not surprising. Abbey was, indeed, involved to an extent with Earth First, not least taking part in a 1981 protest which saw the group create a fake crack down the concrete facade of the Glen Canyon Dam, yet another case of life imitating Abbey’s art. But dig a little deeper and the philosophical gap between Abbey and the movement that claims to follow him becomes stark and perplexing.
These differences cannot be explained away as academic overinterpretation of small differences in dogma between a few simple activists. Abbey, for all the crude cowboy image he cultivated, had a Masters in Philosophy, and the radical environmentalists, for all their focus on direct action, have a strong and coherent intellectual underpinning. The differences, in other words, are real, and hard to explain away.
If Abbey influences Earth First’s methods and message, then the Norwegian philosopher and environmentalist Arne Naess surely provides its intellectual backbone. Naess coined the phrase “deep ecology” (in contrast to what he saw as the “shallow” ecology of mainstream conservationists and biological scientists) and expounded its basic tenets in 1973, just two years before The Monkey Wrench Gang was published.
But though his seminal work, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle would only finally be translated into English in the 1980s, his philosophy nevertheless serves as a definition, both descriptive and prescriptive of the movement’s ideology. Consider the eight tenets of deep ecology he sets out in that book:
- The flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth has intrinsic value. […]
- Richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves […].
- Humans have no right to reduce this richness or diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
- Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive […].
- The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease.
- Significant change of life conditions for the better requires [fundamental] change in policies. […]
- The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of intrinsic value) rather than adhering to a high standard of living. […]
- Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation […] to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.
And consider how closely these reflect how groups like Earth First think. Apart from their penchant for sabotage, Earth First do take the time to mull over, debate and discuss why they act and what they want. They have a bimonthly journal in which their thinking is laid bare – and it closely fits Naess’ definition of deep ecology, particularly in its insistence that ecosystems and the preservation of wild spaces are an intrinsic good, rather than being contingent on human enjoyment of them, as well as in its predictable focus on action.
Foreman at one stage apparently backed forced sterilisation and the end of food aid to famine-stricken regions as a way of reducing humans’ ecological footprint – a clear indication of his view that the preservation of the environment is more important than the preservation of human life. (Indeed, he is on record as saying that “the human race could go extinct, and I for one would not shed any tears.”) These are hardly isolated examples – Earth First Journal has also published letters welcoming AIDS as a necessary curb on the world population. And Naess’ eighth point – that subscribing to these views gives a moral imperative to act closely mirrors both prominent Earth Firster Judi Bari’s insistence as she was dying of cancer that her profession be listed as “revolutionary” as well as – and here we come back to Edward Abbey – the group’s focus on direct action.
And yet, Abbey’s characters aren’t acting because they want to make “no compromise in defence of mother earth”, as Earth First’s slogan would have it. Nor are they all that interested in the flourishing of life or indeed any ideological foundation other than a sort of basic, contrarian anarchism (the theme of revenge, rather than defence of nature, is pervasive in the novel). Indeed, Abbey’s characters promise early in the novel to “let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise theoretical coherence,” (p69) which is about as far from Arne Naess’ prescriptions as is possible. Was he subtly ridiculing his comrades in the movement?
It’s easy to read too much into the subtext of a novel, of course, even if this one is fairly transparent. But Abbey’s other famous book, Desert Solitaire (1968), a work of non-fiction, expounds the same sort of views as he ascribes to his characters – a down-to-earth rejection of ideology and – in stark contrast with people like Earth First – a clear commitment to an egocentric, rather than ecocentric view of conservation. Abbey enjoyed the West, and though he abhorred car parks and 4x4s long before it was trendy to do so, he actually wanted people to visit the great wildernesses. Abbey’s opposition to the development of the West was not that it meant people coming in – it was that it destroyed the reason for going there in the first place.
Throughout Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s opposition to the development of the West is couched in terms of aesthetic damage (roads going “against the grain of the landscape”, for example) and in terms of the wilderness being tamed. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, opposition to the Glen Canyon Dam is presented as being because of the beauty it destroyed, not the ecosystems it damaged. Indeed, the only reference, however oblique, to the massive ecological damage dam has caused downstream in the Grand Canyon is the throwaway observation that the Colorado River is no longer red with silt.
Abbey did not want to exclude people from the West, he wanted them to come, see and enjoy it in its pristine form, precisely the sort of attitude denounced by the likes of Naess.
In fact, a whole series of deep contradictions exist in Abbey’s relationship with deep ecology. Abbey’s individualism contrasts with their communitarianism; his egocentrism with their ecocentrism; his anarchism versus their authoritarianism. And perhaps most importantly of all, his anthropocentric wish for human enjoyment of the west contrasts with the deep ecologists' occasional spells of sinister misanthropy.
Abbey’s enthusiasm for the wild West is life affirming and human, and represents the rugged individualism of the West he adopted when he moved there as a young man. The deep ecologists’ morbid obsession with genocide, starvation and the apparent fragility of an ecosystem which must be defended at all costs is a quite different proposition. Abbey’s was the environmentalism of endless possibility; Naess's is the environmentalism of prohibition.
There is always the possibility that Abbey’s views changed with time. His most influential books were written before Earth First got going, and before Naess’ Ecology, Community and Lifestyle was translated into English. The development of the radical environmental movement, as well as the expounding of its philosophy, followed the publication of the two books that define his life and career, they did not precede it. But there is actually pretty strong evidence that his views stayed quite constant throughout his life.
Desert Solitaire was published in 1968, but written in the 1950s when Abbey worked at the Arches, and he was comfortable enough with his views as a young man to publish them years later. Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang in the 1970s, again, betraying no change in opinion. And in 1989 – ten years after the foundation of Earth First, Abbey’s wrote his final novel, Hayduke Lives! (which was published after his death in 1990). And far from recanting his previous views, this novel is a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Going back before his earliest publications (and into the realm of speculation) we see the same mischievous attitude at work in The Monkey Wrench Gang in the way Abbey lived his life – getting his college newspaper banned when he was at university, deserting when he was in the army and committing a litany of minor crimes everywhere he went.
Abbey showed remarkable consistency throughout his life, and was no fool. He must have realised that even if he shared a great deal with his comrades in Earth First, he did not share a philosophy.
So what on earth is going on? Abbey seems to have been uninterested in dogma and ideology. Most probably he realised that his friends’ motivations were different, but simply shared their enthusiasm and agreed with their objectives. We’ll never know for sure, as Edward Abbey died twenty years ago and Naess died in January.
But in his last wishes Abbey perhaps left a good-humoured nudge to his comrades that he wasn’t quite the man they thought. At his request, his friends (illegally) buried him at a secret location somewhere in Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta Desert, wrapped in his sleeping bag, his grave watered with whiskey – a final (and very human) act of self-indulgence and enjoyment of the wilderness his comrades wanted to keep off-limits.