The radical environmental movement began in opposition to the growing establishmentarian attitude of mainstream environmental groups such as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Parks & Conservation Association, and the Environmental Policy Institute who are collectively referred to as “the Group of Ten (Scarce, 16). These organizations take a relatively pragmatic stand towards the preservation of the nation’s environmental treasures. For example, some of these mainstream groups agreed to let the government construct Glenn Canyon Dam in Arizona, and in other instances, these groups have been modest in the amount they demand be set aside for preservation.
This sense of compromise with government authorities in order to preserve at least a modicum of the nation’s natural resources has created a rift of ambiguity between the mainstream and the more radical environmentalist groups. On the one hand, radical environmentalists oppose compromise in the name of the environment on philosophical grounds. However, their own unreasonable demands are also part of an orchestrated strategy designed to make public officials more cooperative with the demands made by groups like the Sierra Club whose demands look reasonable in comparison to the ultimatums made by the radicals.
However, the radical environmental movement is more than a marketing ploy designed to win demands from government officials. It is also a school of thought drawing inspiration from various philosophical sources. One of the main philosophical schools that radical environmentalists draw upon is known as "Deep Ecology". According to this set of ideas, the conservation policies pursued by more mainstream environmental groups are incorrect because man is still used as the primary measure of all things, at least when it comes to environmental protection (Manes, 56). To the Deep Ecologist, every natural thing is on equal footing. Human beings are no better than moss or a pine cone.
Any assertion to the contrary is labeled anthropocentrism, which is an offense as allegedly as vile as racism. While this philosophy may make one feel neighborly towards the chipmunks down at the park, this way of thinking is fraught with a number of dangers. For example, it was asserted in one media account of a couple attacked by a rabid cougar, it was commented that no one had the right to kill the beast even though one of the mauled individuals lost several fingers in the attack. Needless to say, the person making the comment had never faced similar circumstances.
Coupled with this bio or eco-centrism is a disdain for technological development. Following in the footsteps of Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, radical environmentalists believe that technology allows man to dominate nature (Manes, 26). As such, he is dehumanized by his own inventions as existence is reduced to production and consumption. Never mind the fact that it is modern technology that allows individuals feeling this way to have the leisure time to devise and disseminates these thoughts. If dependence on technology can be reversed, it is thought, man will be able to reestablish his proper place in the natural world.
However, there is more to this worldview than abstract thinking and philosophical posturing. Being a physically active lot as many of the movement's adherents are avid outdoorsmen, much of the movement's theoretical underpinnings are based upon action and deed.
The primary action oriented text inspiring radical environmentalism is The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey who considered himself a "literary bum" destined to stand against the technological and industrial forces simultaneously arrayed against human freedom and environmental preservation (Scarce, 240). The Monkeywrench Gang is a novel about a group of live-hard outdoorsmen who roam the countryside in an old van performing various acts of ecological sabotage such a burning billboards, driving bulldozers over cliffs, pulling up survey stakes, and yanking out railroad tracks. The sequel to The Monkeywrench Gang, written shortly before Abbey's death, is Hayduke Lives! in which the gang reunites for one more spate of neo-Luddite shenanigans.
While these works help define the action-oriented aspects of radical environmentalism in a highly entertaining format, they also expose the inconsistencies at the heart of the movement. For example, throughout The Monkeywrench Gang, the characters rail against highways while tossing empty beer cans on to the side of the road; and while claiming to be at one with nature, the characters long for the showers and coffee at the Holiday Inn (Scarce, 240).
Another book with widespread popularity among radical environmentalists is Ecodefense: A Handbook For The Militant Defense Of Earth. Ecodefense is a how to on radical environmentalist tactics. In a sense, it is comparable to The Anarchist's Cookbook as it elaborates how to perpetrate mayhem by decommissioning bulldozers, pulling up survey stakes, and spiking trees as well as other tactics designed to stop the hordes of civilization seeking to pillage the wilderness (Scarce, 74).
Written by Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, Ecodefense was an immediate success with it being read by young environmental radicals from around the world. The book became so influential that the supervisor of the Williamette National Forest in Oregon testified in a Congressional hearing that he would consider closing the area under his jurisdiction if the tactics described in the book were carried out within the forest's boundaries (Manes, 83). And on a lighter note, "Ecodefense" was published by a firm called "Nedd Ludd Books" named in honor of the 19th century worker who participated in a campaign to destroy various forms of factory machinery.
The group that probably first and foremost put the principles embodied by this ideology into practice was Earth First!. The exclamation point is part of the groups name and not a grammatical construct symbolizing this author’s enthusiasm for the organization
Earth First! was founded by an assortment of individuals coming from a variety of backgrounds. Dave Foreman, who would later go on to write the aforementioned “Ecodefense”, started off surprisingly as a Republican and member of the Young Americans For Freedom as a supporter of Barry Goldwater. Foreman joined the Marines, but eventually went AWOL. He worked for a time for the Wilderness Society, only to leave the group disenchanted with what he perceived as the organization's moderation. Howe Wolke, who was considered by some as somewhat more of a libertarian, was a forestry student, bouncer, and oilfield hand, came to Earth First! from Friends of the Earth where he worked as a field representative attending public meetings and handling press relations. He quit that organization because that organization cut his $75 per month salary (Manes, 66). Mike Roselle was a radical involved with Abbie Hoffman's and Jerry Rubin's Yippy counterculture organization who himself later left that group because of its perceived political opportunism in order to establish the "Zippies". Other founding members of Earth First! included Bart Kochler, a former Wyoming Wilderness Society staff member with a knack for political organization as well as song writing, and Ron Kezar, a former seasonal U.S. Park Service employee who was trained as a librarian and an expert on the history of American military strategy (Manes, 68).
Groups such as Earth First! believe that the earth will be saved via anarchy which will topple modern industrialized technocratic civilization. In such a context, anarchy is defined as, "...the maximum possible dispersal of power; political, economic...and military power. An anarchist society would consist of a voluntary association of self-reliant self-sustaining autonomous communities (Scarce, 88)."
However, within the ranks of Earth First! there was a rift just how much anti-Americanism that the notion entailed. One faction led by group founder Dave Foreman held that anarchy was merely a means to an end which was the preservation of the biosphere. As such, flag burnings, an act of defiance preferred by some in the group, was seen as uncalled for (Scarce, 88). The other side of the dispute was led by ecofeminists, who combined the struggle against environmental degradation with the struggle against the patriarchy, and a splinter group originally called "Stumps Suck" but which ultimately settled on the name "Live Wild Or Die". Both of these submovements used their Earth First! activism as a broader platform to attack the wider consumer culture (Manes, 103).
Though often classified as "soft-core terrorist groups" by the FBI, many of the deeds committed by these kinds of organizations often border more on the juvenile than on the outright dangerous though still unquestionably criminal. Since many of these groups claim to ascribe to a code of nonviolent ethics based upon their own interpretation of Gandhian principles, many of these groups have turned to alternative forms of political behavior.
For example, one group calling itself the Revolutionary Ecoterrorist Pie Brigade tossed pies at timber industry spokesman at a convention. Another group put cow patties atop a Forest Service office building’s air conditioners in Washington State’s Okanogan National Forest (Manes, 104). And yet a another Earth First! splinter group called the Gross Action Group staged an event referred to as a “puke in” at a Seattle shopping center in 1988 when the activists ingested a vomit-inducing drug in order to shock holiday shoppers into realizing the disgusting nature of American consumerism, no doubt prompting sales to temporarily dip at the food court (Scarce, 89).
Despite these shenanigans, not all forms of radical environmental activism can be dismissed as good natured frolicking in the North Woods. Some of the tactics are downright life threatening.
One of the most common and dangerous activities engaged in by radical environmentalist groups is tree spiking where nails are driven into trees often slated for sale from national forests into private hands. The point of such an exercise is to discourage timber companies from extracting the wood because of the damage the nails could do to expensive equipment and not the mention the employees who would most likely be injured by flying nails, shattered equipment, or both.
To justify these actions in light of their “nonviolent” ethics, tree spikers often inform forestry authorities of their activities prior to harvest in order to avoid human injury. A prominent tree spiking incident occurred in May 1987 when a mill worker was injured by a band saw shattered by a tampered tree. Timber authorities roundly condemned Earth First! who denied involvement. Surprisingly, the injured mill worker publicly stated his support for Earth’s First!’s goals, and in an even bigger twist of events, it was learned that Earth First! had not carried out this particular tree spiking as has been concluded earlier. The perpetrator was actually an irate libertarian worried that timber companies logging near his property would want his land next (Manes, 11).
Despite this record, fears on the part of law enforcement are not without justification. Dave Foreman, one of Earth First!’s founders, did say, “It’s time for a warrior society to rise out of the Earth and throw itself in front of the juggernaut of destruction, to be antibodies against the human pox that is ravaging this precious beautiful planet (Manes, 86)." Pretty strong words, especially considering the fact than many in the group, while pro-environment, aren’t necessarily vegetarian or against hunting, with human beings being just another string in nature’s web no more important or distinct from any other animal.
Radical environmentalists have proven that they themselves are not above the use of violence. For example, one group calling itself Direct Action blew up a British Columbia electrical substation in 1982. A radical Greenpeace splinter group calling itself the Sea Shepherds has no qualms about ramming what the organization considers pirate whaling ships on the high seas (Manes, 86). Other groups get a kick from setting bulldozers and related construction equipment on fire.
The future of radical environmentalism and its accompanying deeds of quasi-violence and para-terrorism are the subjects of intense debate. Analysts are divided over the issue.
One perspective concludes that the violence will only get worse. A 1990 report released by the Heritage Foundation titled "Eco-Terrorism: The Dangerous Fringes Of The Environmental Movement" argues that eventually innocent people will likely be hurt by the fanaticism of this ideology that prefers moss over man (Scarce, 265).
The other side of this debate contends that, if such violent actions were taken, they would be counter productive as many law abiding citizens view environmental issues as quality of life issues. For example, residents of both Pennsylvania and Virginia have at times thumbed their noses at assorted development projects that would impact the historical and cultural distinctiveness of geographical treasures such as Lancaster Dutch Country and George Washington's boyhood home. Only time will tell if the true goals of radical environmentalism are simply about raising public awareness or about tossing a wrench into the gears of the technological society they claim to loathe for the purposes of tearing it down.
by Frederick Meekins
Manes, Christopher. "Green Rage: Environmentalism & The Unmaking Of Civilization." Boston: Little, Brown & Company. 1990.
Scarce, Rik. "Eco-Warriors: Understanding The Radical Environmental Movement." Chicago: The Noble Press, Inc. 1990.