ON THE RAMPAGE:
THE ECOLOGY OF RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
By: Frederick Meekins
In this era of hyperterrorism where every Tom, Dick, and Abdul with a grudge
against society because of a rotten childhood blows up a bus or shoots up a post office,
many are not too concerned about the activities of other outcasts striving to save the
spotted owl or kangaroo rat with methods outside accepted political procedure since the
most violent terrorists create the more pressing security concerns. However, simply
because radical environmentalists arent known for eliminating their opposition with
explosives, that does not mean that this movement challenging many of the presuppositions
of modern technocratic society is not worthy of our attention.
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 nations 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 nations 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
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 authors 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,
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
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 buildings air conditioners in Washington States
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 Earths 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, Its 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,
arent necessarily vegetarian or against hunting, with human beings being just
another string in natures 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
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.
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.
"Published originally at EtherZone.com :
republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact."
Frederick Meekins is a free lance writer and a regular columnist for Ether
Frederick Meekins can be reached at: email@example.com
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