When Louisa Wilcox ’80, an esteemed advocate of grizzly bear habitat protection, returned to the Williams campus to discuss her experiences as an environmental activist, it was not her legislative effectiveness that most impressed me. Rather, she had been responsible for untying one of the knots that allowed a false crack to stream down the Glen Canyon Dam in Colorado, at one of Earth First!’s inaugural events. The faux vandalism was enacted as a statement by many environmentalists who were opposed to the dam, which covered an entire, rich canyon ecosystem in water. To demonstrate their desire to have the dam removed, some radical members of the movement unrolled a huge wedge of black cloth on the dam, to make it appear as though the dam had been cracked. In the presence of Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey, Wilcox participated in this symbolic demonstration, which launched the radical environmental movement.
Following the mock cracking of the Glen Canyon Dam, radical environmentalism and the monkey wrenching associated with its more extreme forms flourished. (The monkey wrench has become the symbol of the tactical destruction of technology by radicals to achieve environmental ends.) Earth First!, which embodies the slogan of “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth,” and other radical environmental groups have certainly done much to enhance the public’s awareness of the severity of environmental destruction. However, its most extreme forms of tree-spiking, bulldozer destruction and road-ripping compel serious ethical considerations. Some also question whether radical environmentalism decreases society’s receptiveness to the environmental movement as a whole.
The tenets of radical environmentalism are encompassed in the idea that the welfare of the ecosystem must be prioritized over economics, progress or any other human interest. Considering the intensity of the violence intrinsic in environmental destruction, its supporters hold that only drastic actions are appropriate. In Confessions of an Eco-warrior, Earth First!’s founder Dave Foreman claims, in regards to Earth First!’s emergence, that “it was necessary for a group to consciously step outside of the system. . .to bring biocentric arguments for wilderness to the fore. . .to help prepare the soil out of which could sprout a necessary spectrum of groups within the wilderness movement; and to make possible the serious discussion of previously taboo subjects such as predator re-introduction, wilderness restoration and outlawing of timber cutting and livestock grazing on public lands.” Rather than a replacement for more traditional environmental organizations, Earth First! was, according to Foreman, founded as a kamikaze operation which intended to create conditions which would allow environmental philosophers, conservation biologists and independent grassroots groups to work together towards new visions of a wild Earth.
Two recent incidents have caused many to reconsider the original tenets, progress and future goals of radical environmentalism. In September, David Chain, an activist in California’s Headwaters Forest, was killed when he was crushed by a tree cut down by a logger.
In October, an arsonist destroyed Vail’s Two Elks Lodge, causing approximately $12 million in damage. The arson fires followed five days after a judge ruled that Vail resorts could proceed with expansion into the Two Elk Roadless Area. With the development of the vast stretches of roadless areas would come the destruction of the last potential lynx habitat in Colorado. Although the sparse lynx sightings in Colorado have all been in the proximity of the proposed expansion, the consulting biologist for Vail resorts admits that they “don’t know squat about lynx in Colorado.”
Although I desperately want to see the Two Elk Roadless Area protected, I cannot support the destruction associated with the Vail arson. However, I am also hesitant to outright condone it, although I do feel it may have hindered other less-radical environmental campaigns in Colorado, while also failing to be productive by itself. Having seen the stumps lacing mountainsides that have been raped of their biological richness in the name of progress and profit, I recognize that the magnitude of the violence of environmental destruction far exceeds that induced by radical environmentalists.
However, immersion in wildness has also taught me that the forest is not a place that embraces violent struggle. I find more captivating power in the beauty of wildlands than that associated with any hoard of monkey wrenches. Of course, I also believe in the power of a committed group of people coming together. I was pleased this afternoon when I opened an environmental journal to a picture of a good friend protesting the senseless slaughter of Yellowstone Bison. I supported another friend when he learned first hand that it can take a surprisingly long time to remove a u-lock connecting one’s neck to the door of the office of an anti-environmental representative.
John Muir once proclaimed that if it ever came to a war between the races, he would side with the bears. I too will side with the bears. . .and the lynx, wolves, and bison. However, I’m fairly certain that my tactics will not require any monkey wrenches.