“Oppose. Oppose the destruction of our homeland by these alien forces from Houston, Tokyo, Manhattan, Washington DC, and the Pentagon. And if opposition is not enough, we must resist, and if resistance is not enough, then subvert.”
-Edward Abbey speaking at an Earth First! protest.
In the “Forward!” to Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, Edward Abbey makes a clear, concise argument for environmental sabotage, or monkeywrenching as he coined it: “if the wilderness is our true home, and if it is threatened with invasion, pillage and destruction—as it certainly is—then we have the right to defend that home, as we would our private rooms, by whatever means are necessary.” The defensive means described in the book include spiking trees doomed to the clear-cut, spiking and damaging superfluous and destructive roads, undoing the work of surveyors necessary for planning any development, ruining the engines and moving parts of all manner of heavy machinery, and, most importantly, how to do all this without getting caught. Radical as all this seems, in many ways Ecodefense was a follow-up to Abbey’s popular novel The Monkeywrench Gang in which a group of friends become determined to halt the expansion of human domination and greed into the desert they love. They used the techniques of eco-sabotage to fight back against the invasion of wilderness. Abbey made an effort to describe the gang’s monkeywrenching exploits in enough detail that anyone inspired would have a pretty good idea of where to start.
It turns out many were inspired by The Monkeywrench Gang, including the environmental advocacy group Earth First! which was responsible for Ecodefense. Since then monkeywrenching has been controversial to say the least. Some critics, including the US government, label it terrorism despite its commitment to nonviolent action. Others criticize it for putting a bad face on environmentalism and making it harder for “legitimate” conservationists to progress in the courtroom or statehouse. At its core, however, monkeywrenching, and direct action in general, is about defense. When legal and political means fail, then every citizen has a choice: move aside and allow the industrial machine to slowly advance over the land we love, or to stand in defiance, wrench in hand, ready to jam the gears and halt the destruction.
The most strategic form of monkeywrenching aims to increase the operating costs on industrial projects that invade the wild by damaging their property. Many of these endeavors are already financially marginal—the cheap land to exploit was used up long ago—and so by destroying or spiking enough roads, by forcing the replacement of enough bulldozers, or by ruining enough sawmill blades with tree spikes, one can persuade a corporation to leave the wild land to the wild people. Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, many of these projects are still quite profitable, especially as the prices of resources like continue to rise, and therefore can absorb the losses. However, as more and more destructive and invasive projects are required to meet demand for resources, profits begin to shrink, gobbled up by operating costs. Fracking is an example; it is a very complex and expensive process, not to mention incredibly destructive to life and land. Recently, many fracking operations have gone bust after the price of oil dropped, driving their already small margins into the red. Likewise, if a strategic monkeywrencher can inflict enough financial loss, a particular well may be forced to close down. Further, if a fracking operator comes to expect a certain amount of loss, they may choose not to continue with a project that was already financial marginal.
For this type of sabotage to be effective, however, the work must be decentralized and dispersed. There can be no leaders or organizational structure as this is too easy to target and destroy. Monkeywrenchers must operate independently or in small groups. It is also important that the work is dispersed across a wilderness, state, nation, or planet; a target can’t know where or when the next hit will come if multiple groups are acting independently and in different regions. Additionally, any new development will know that they could become a target too and may second guess their plans. Finally, it is important to recognize that monkeywrenching alone is likely not enough to institute any large-scale change. It is in conjunction with other forms of activism—legal, political, and protest—that monkeywrenching can be most effective. (In those cases where legal and political action alone are adequate, monkeywrenching should not be applied at all.) For example, giving the more “moderate” activists a common enemy with the corporations and government can put them in a better negotiating position. Also it allows them to move towards a more hard-line position while still appearing “reasonable” by comparison.
The Environmental Movement Today
Since the 80s and 90s, monkeywrenching, and all forms of direct action, seems to have become much less prevalent, likely due to the government crackdown on so-called “eco-terrorism” and a shift in favor of more traditional and safe forms of activism, mainly litigation. So, the question is: are we better off without it? In a 1982 interview, Abbey was asked about the future of environmentalism: “I think it has a very good future, the worse the environment gets the more popular environmentalism becomes.” Well, the environment has undoubtedly gotten worse over the past 35 years, but has environmentalism become more popular? Is it a more powerful and present force in our society and our lives? In some ways, yes, especially with the general acceptance of climate change (at least among intelligent folks) many more people would identify as an environmentalist or are at least concerned about the environment. They’re concerned enough to buy a hybrid or electric car, or maybe donate to an established charity. Additionally, more people than ever are pursuing outdoor hobbies like hiking or skiing or fishing, surely these folks must see the importance of defending nature. However, while it’s true that protests, mostly against oil and gas interests, have become more frequent as of late, a sufficiently large grassroots movement has failed to materialize. Meanwhile, established environmental nonprofits work almost exclusively in the legal realm, trying to enforce existing laws and lobbying to place new land under federal protection. This is important work but it is highly specialized, inaccessible to all but legal experts, and expensive. These charities are able to raise money from small donations given by regular folks, but to cover their costs, most of them must rely on wealthy benefactors for their continued existence and effectiveness.
David Bonderman, for example, is a venture capitalist and billionaire who founded TPG Capital, a global investment firm with large, sometimes majority stakes in many corporations, including Burger King, Continental Airlines, Caesars Entertainment (a casino corporation based in the gluttonous and greedy garbage pile of a city called Vegas), Neiman Marcus, Texas Genco Holdings, Inc. (which owns and operates fossil-fueled power generation facilities), Energy Future Holdings (which owns or leases coal, nuclear, and natural gas-fueled power generation facilities), Denbury Resources (another oil company), and Belden & Blake Corporation (who earn their living through the acquisition, exploitation, development, production, and operation of oil properties). In 2010, TNG even launched its own oil company, Petro Harvester Oil & Gas, a company dedicated to the acquisition and development of oil properties in North America. Mr. Bonderman, it’s safe to say, has done pretty well with these investments; for his 70th birthday, he threw a private party with special guests Paul McCartney, John Fogerty, and Robin Williams performing (for a substantial fee of course). This has become a tradition for Mr. Bonderman. According to the New York Times, “it was Mr. Bonderman, known to friends and colleagues as Bondo, who set the standard for these blowouts a decade ago. For his 60th birthday party at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he hired the Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp to perform.” (article) Yet, while Bondo certainly knows how to throw a party; he also cares—about the environment if you can believe it! He sits on the boards of The Grand Canyon Trust, The World Wildlife Fund, and The Wilderness Society.
Bondo’s not the alone either. The Wilderness Society board also includes billionaire investment banker, and husband to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Richard C. Blum and venture capitalist Kevin Luzak who also happens to be CEO of the timber company Coastal Forest Resources. On the boards of both The Wilderness Society and The Grand Canyon Trust is Hansjörg Wyss, the Swiss billionaire. Roger W. Sant, billionaire co-founder of the energy giant AES which relies on coal and oil energy, and Wang Shi, founder of China Vanke, the largest residential real estate developer in the world, sit on the WWF board. WWF in particular has also taken many donations from corporations such as Coke-a-Cola, Shell, and Monsanto and has a secret group of wealthy benefactors known as The 1001: A Nature Trust which includes many high profile, and controversial, businesspeople and politicians (source). These particular organizations are representative of the mainstream environmental movement in general, and it’s understandable; to maintain a top-notch legal team and to work cases through the system is expensive. Without wealthy benefactors, it is unlikely they could continue this important work. However, this fact also affects the goals and ideology of conservation nonprofits; they must stay in line with the check-writers or risk irrelevancy. I personally will refrain from using phrases like “hush money,” or “bribery” or, optimistically, “guilt money” though others have made a case for such unsavory accusations.
It does seem that many of these wealthy “green-capitalists” maintain a scientific utopian ideal that that technology and innovation will rescue us from the brink and, conveniently, no sacrifice will be necessary! It’s true that technology has led to some “greener” alternatives but thus far these have had little effect on our planet. Have global temperatures or extinction rates declined? Has development in sensitive habitats ceased? Have destructive mining and logging practices become obsolete? Technology alone won’t rescue us, we need to change the way we live and the way we think. At the risk of devaluing the work these organizations do, which is certainly not my intention, I must say that, at least to some extent, the environmental movement has been hijacked by wealthy benefactors with their own priorities. I’m sure most of these men and women have good intentions, but they also have their own priorities; priorities which begin with their continued wealth and success (greed) and which probably blind them to the most insidious enemy of nature: capitalism (the rationalization of greed).
Nature’s True Foes: Targets of the Wrench!
I believe it should be clear to any dedicated and honest defender of nature that our greatest enemy is the capitalist system and mindset. Capitalism demands constant growth and expansion while viewing resources, and the planet itself, as a commodity, profit ready to be made. Abbey, who identified as an anarchist and was skeptical of any centralized control, be it in the Capital or a boardroom, and whose father was a socialist with the IWW, was no stranger to critiques of capitalism. In his posthumously published work A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Abbey says of capitalism: “nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.” When asked by an interviewer in 1982 about the major environmental problems of today, Abbey responded that it was “progress, development, growth, industry. Everything that the politicians and the chamber of commerce loves, I’m against”
Capitalism is the machine of growth, and once its engine starts turning it is very hard to stop. High demand necessitates high supply which requires high demand, all of which produces more and more profit and more and more growth. Endless growth and development, across the prairies and forests and down the rivers. Additionally, the fact that the vast majority of the profit ends up in the hands of a lucky few means those with the most power, financial and therefore political, also have the strongest interest in maintaining the status quo of unceasing expansion. As we have seen, these powerful folks already have a tremendous amount of say in how the the environmental movement should operate; namely, it should operate in a way that benefits them and their interests. So capitalism today has at least two major problems with regard to the environmental ethic (and any ethic worth ascribing to). First, is the incessant demand for more—more growth, more people, more production, more resources—despite the obvious and catastrophic impact on the planet. Second, is the funneling of money into the hands of a privileged few who are, through their oh-so-generous donations, allowed an outsized opinion on how the environment should be protected.
Simply rallying against capitalistic excess, however, will not be enough. It will likely be a losing fight for the hearts and minds of the average person who is not interested in such radical change. First, we must change the way we, as a society, view conservation. We must change our view of nature and our place in it. We must see ourselves as part of the Earth, not merely existing on it. John Muir, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey and just about any conservationist worth their salt saw this as the ultimate goal. Aldo Leopold called it the Land Ethic saying in his forward to A Sand County Almanac, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” If we as a society can learn to extend our love and respect to the animals, trees, flowers, ferns, mosses, mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans, air, rocks, and dirt; then conservationism will have finally won.
Suddenly, the fight for nature has become much larger and complicated. If success inside the environmental movement is to be more than just sporadic victories in a wash of losing battles, we will need sweeping change in both our economic system and our national mindset. It is safe to say a movement like this will receive little support from the millionaire or billionaire classes. A true grassroots movement will be necessary; no millionaires required. An example of how a grassroots movement can draw attention and change minds is Black Lives Matter. Until the Black Lives Matter movement began pressuring for change, the protests and civil disobedience that had been so crucial to ending segregation had mostly disappeared from civil rights activism. The fight had moved into the courtroom, an important arena, but one with a narrow scope. Since the direct action taken by Black Lives Matter, focus in the civil rights movement has shifted away from litigating decades old civil rights legislation and towards the idea of broad, systemic change. A grassroots environmental movement can do something similar; pressure people into regarding our planet with love and respect and arguing in favor of radical action to protect that planet. Additionally, we should be grateful that the environmental movement has many potential allies. Capitalism and greed have been disastrous to more than just the environment; workers, many of whom hunt, fish, hike and boat in wild places, can be natural allies in the fight against the greed of corporations. Segments of the civil rights movement have long been critical of corporate pollution and institutionalized greed generally. Cooperation among different grassroots movements with similar goals could create a truly large ground swell of the kind that can bring real change. A reform movement that is greater than yet inclusive of the conservationist’s goals.
Of course, participating in a grassroots movement doesn’t require sabotage or breaking the law, just commitment and determination. Protest, write, speak, do whatever you can to make your voice heard and your presence felt. Work smart and strategically. If an organized protest or boycott can help bring attention or support, then start organizing. If a legal defense is needed, make sure your friendly local or global environmental nonprofit is in the loop. If sabotage can be effective, and you’re feeling adventurous and brave, then grab your wrench! Start small. Here’s a strategy: pick a roadless area of significant size in your region and claim it as wilderness; then keep it that way. Call your congressman. Call the President. Call The Wilderness Society. Write an open letter. Organize. Protest. Pull up survey stakes. Spike any new roads. Wreck a ‘dozer. Resist. Fight. And don’t forget to go outside! Hike and sleep on the ground; know the land you’re fighting for.
“Direct action gets the goods,” goes an old IWW saying. The threat of internal sabotage, strikes, marches, and slow-downs in the factory could certainly pressure management, but what can it really do in defense of wilderness? Will it end the absurd notion of constant and necessary growth through destruction and exploitation? Probably not on its own, but it can draw attention and support and change minds. “My job is to save the fucking wilderness,” said George Hayduke, the foul-mouthed, beer-swilling hero of The Monkeywrench Gang. Hayduke wasn’t a lawyer or writer or philanthropist, but when his home was invaded he fought back the only way he knew how. Hayduke’s fictional exploits have inspired many to do the same—to resist the assaults on our planet by whatever means are necessary; and when politics and civil disobedience aren’t enough then maybe direct action, with a socket wrench and sand, with a spike and a hammer, with a chainsaw and an axe, can get the goods. Yes, it is radical, but we could use a lot more radicals. Moderates have led the environmental movement to where it is now: desperately trying to litigate decades old legislation while standing by, either helpless or blind, as the slow march of the enormous, profit-driven machine marches onward killing, burning, and paving its way from coast to coast and across our planet. Standing firm against the corporate oligarchs who view our shared home—the wilderness, nature, Earth—as expendable and exploitable requires no apology. “Wilderness requires no defense, only more defenders,” said Abbey. Complacency and apathy and capitulation can not be tolerated; your membership in the Sierra Club is not enough. “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul,” said Abbey. Agitate. Toss a wrench into the machine. Let the bastards know we’re here. “There’s work to do,” says Hayduke.