Tributaries of Radical Environmentalism before Earth First!

The event that precipitated the formation of Earth First! was a devastating defeat in the late 1970s at the end of the US Forest Service’s “Roadless Area Review and Evaluation” process, in which the Forest Service refused to grant the designation of “wilderness” to areas that many conservationists considered biologically important. But the seeds of radical environmentalism had already sprouted long before then. As early as the 1950s there were scattered incidents of sabotage in the United States in defiance of environmentally destructive and aesthetically displeasing commercial enterprises. Some of these were reflected in the writings of the Southwestern writer Edward Abbey, first subtly, in his classic memoir Desert Solitaire (1968).

Edward Abbey. See Earth First! 9, no. 5.

In it, while ruminating on his time as a park ranger at Utah’s Arches National Monument (now a national park), Abbey alluded to late-night sabotage campaigns by wilderness lovers that had begun in the late 1950s. Soon Abbey published The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), a novel about a band of passionate if crazed and angry environmentalists who roamed the deserts of the Southwest, destroying billboards, bulldozers, and conspiring to blow up Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam to liberate the Colorado River, which they felt had been unjustly incarcerated behind it. Abbey combined evocative, pantheistic writing about the sublime value of nature, with a unique form of libertarian anarchism that resonated with biocentrism, and by so doing, inspired many of those who formed Earth First! Earlier nature writers, especially Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, also helped to kindle the movement, as did a host of writers who from the 1960s onward provided strong critiques of mechanistic, hierarchal, patriarchal, monotheistic, agricultural-industrial-capitalist societies, especially Rachel Carson, Paul Shepard, Louis Mumford, Lynn White Jr., and Roderick Nash.

Authors and books that have inspired the Earth First! movement. Click on the images for a larger format.

Likewise, the tributaries of radical environmentalism included diverse streams of the American counterculture, which incubated in the 1950s and emerged as a powerful cultural force in the 1960s. Its elements included a deep suspicion of, if not outright antipathy towards, the religious and philosophical underpinnings of Western culture, which was said to obviate a proper understanding of sacredness and kinship of all life and to be linked to a repressive patriarchal order. Offered as alternatives, variously, were worldviews rooted in indigenous traditions (especially American Indians), recently revitalized pagan religions, or religions originating in Asia, as well as understandings emerging from ecology and new sciences ranging from quantum and complexity theory to conservation biology and the Gaia hypothesis. These diverse streams were all said to recognize the interrelatedness and mutual dependence of all life and to provide better ethical guideposts than Western civilization with its sky gods, philosophical dualism, and reductionist science. Fused to this were leftist or anarchist political ideologies, and sometimes a corresponding revolutionary fervor, envisioning the overthrow or eventual collapse of a putatively authoritarian and environmentally unsustainable capitalist nation-state.

Binary associations typical of radical environmentalism. Adapted from the article “Radical Environmentalism” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron Taylor (London & New York: Continuum, 2005).

No one better exemplified or promoted the general thrust of these critiques than the poet/philosopher Gary Snyder, who had been deeply involved in the San Francisco counterculture. In his remarkably innovative (and eventually, Pulitzer Prize-winning) book of poetry and prose, Turtle Island (1969), Snyder advanced an animistic and biocentric spirituality influenced by American Indian cultures and shaped by his long-standing Buddhist practice. He fused these spiritual views to a decentralist, anarchist ideology inspired by Petr Kropotkin and the International Workers of the World (a.k.a. the Wobblies) that he and others innovatively labeled Bioregionalism, which sought to reconfigure political loyalties and revive a sense of connectedness with the watersheds and ecosystems people inhabit and to which they belong. This mix of nature-based spiritualities and decentralist political ideologies was a close countercultural cousin to Earth First!; the bioregionalists focused on creating environmentally sustainable and spirituality meaningful communities while Earth First!ers prioritized direct resistance to what they also considered the destructive force of Western civilization.

An Earth First! Tree. See Earth First! 2, no. 3.

Although there were differences and sometimes tensions between members of these movements, in the years preceding and following the invention of Earth First!, there was enough overlap in the ideas and people involved in Bioregionalism and Earth First! that the main elements of what could be called the worldview of radical environmentalism came into view.

So, when Earth First! announced its arrival and intention to disrupt politics as usual, there was fertile countercultural ground upon which to draw. Indeed, in the early 1980s, there were many radicals without a cause, as the Cold War and nuclear anxieties had ebbed and Latin American revolutions were pacified, while environmental alarm, even apocalypticism, had continued to grow, fueled in part by the Club of Rome’s landmark 1972 report titled The Limits to Growth. The stage was set for the dramatic entry of Earth First! into US environmental politics.