Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- November, 1999

Put Down that Monkey Wrench!

Ernest Partridge


I could see the tracks of [the survey crew’s jeep] quite plainly in the sand and the route was well marked, not only by the tracks but by the survey stakes planted in the ground at regular fifty-foot intervals and by streamers of plastic ribbon tied to the brush and trees.

Teamwork, that’s what made America what it is today. Teamwork and initiative. The survey crew had done their job; I would do mine. For about five miles I followed the course of their survey back toward headquarters, and as I went I pulled up each little wooden stake and threw it away... A futile effort, in the long run, but it made me feel good. Then I went home to the trailer, taking a shortcut over the bluffs.

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


When in 1975 my late friend Ed Abbey published his novel, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," I immediately bought a copy and read it.

It was a hoot!

I could identify with the book, since I was familiar, personally or by reputation, with many of the individuals whose identities were thinly disguised in the novel. And most importantly, like the author, I knew and loved the southern Utah landscape in behalf of which the "gang" – Doc Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, G. W. Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith – were carrying out their mayhem.

When I put down the book, I resumed my environmental activism – all within the confines of the law. Similarly, to the best of my knowledge, Ed Abbey had the good sense to realize that "in the long run," ecotage was "a futile effort." Except for his prank of pulling out the surveyor’s stakes for the proposed road in "Arches National Money-mint," Abbey employed no weapon against industrial "development" more powerful than his typewriter. But what a potent weapon it was!


Some individuals, it seems, have taken Abbey’s suggestion far more seriously. In his recent (June, 2000) Atlantic Monthly article, "Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber," Alston Chase quotes the following from the Portland Oregonian:

"During the past four years alone, the West has been rocked by 33 substantial incidents, with damages reaching $28.8 million. [And although] these crimes started nearly two decades ago – some seem clearly inspired by Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang – they have escalated dangerously, sometimes with the use of bombs, in the last six years." (No citation – just, "reported last fall").

And in an article this month (June 11) in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Michael Sokolove reports the torching of a nearly completed private luxury home near Bloomington, Indiana, by the "Earth Liberation Front" (ELF). Near the ruins of the home was found a spray-painted sign: "No Sprawl. ELF." Later ELF released the following statement:

The Earth Liberation Front would like to take credit for a late-night visit to the Sterling Woods Development... The house was targeted because the sprawling development . . . is in the Lake Monroe watershed. This is the drinking water supply for the town of Bloomington, Indiana, and the surrounding area. It is already being jeopardized by existing development and roads. Once again the rich of the world are destroying what little we have left in terms of natural areas and collective holdings (the water). Hopefully they will get the message that we will not take it anymore.

Never mind that the proposed housing development had undergone several public hearings and an environmental review, satisfying the concerns of local environmentalists. As a capper, Lake Monroe, the "natural area" that ELF was so concerned to protect, was an artificial impoundment.

Nor were the lives of the firemen or of the residents of the adjacent homes of concern to ELF, which has adopted the motto of Earth First!: "No compromise in the defense of the Earth."

The owner of the destroyed home, Vince Scott, resolved to build another at the same site. It is scheduled for completion by Thanksgiving. Thus twice the amount of lumber and other resources will be used in the construction of the Scott home than would have been required had ELF not made their "uncompromising defense of the Earth."

The destruction of the Vince Scott’s home, along with other ELF "actions" such as the $12 million arson at the Vail Ski Resort in 1998, is not "civil disobedience" in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi and King. First of all, it is clearly not "non-violent." And furthermore, unlike Thoreau, Gandhi and King, the perpetrators did not submit themselves to the punishment of the law. No, ELF’s tactics are less in the tradition of King at Selma, than of McVeigh at Oklahoma City. Among environmentalists, the former, non-violent, tradition is honorably represented by Julia (Butterfly) Hill who established a "home" for a year, in the branches of a threatened redwood tree, or by Mark DuBois, who chained himself to a rock along the Stanislaus River, thus delaying the impoundment behind the New Melones Dam.

At this point, we might open up a long, complicated and technical discussion of such deep philosophical issues as the "moral considerability" of natural objects and landscapes, or the libertarian claim of the inviolability of property rights, or in opposition thereto, the allegedly over-riding "defenses of necessity" as articulated in the Earth First! Maxim, "no compromise in the defense of the Earth."

Happily, in this case, we can side-step all that, for the plain and simple reason that the ELF tactics "in defense of the Earth" succeed in "defending" nothing whatever, except, perhaps, the sense of self-importance and self-righteousness of the perpetrators. Still worse, these tactics are counter-productive, for they supply rhetorical and political ammunition for the counterattacks of the "brownlashers" – the corporate-political-ideological opponents to environmental protection and reform.

Accordingly, the question of whether the "advantages" of eco-terrorism outweigh the costs in property and personal safety is moot.  There are no "advantages" to be gained by such tactics, only costs -- and significantly, costs to the cause of "defending the Earth."  "Violence for the Hell of it," will not save the Earth. Still worse, it will disarm those non-violent "mainstream" environmental forces which offer the best hope for the defense of the Earth.

Violent acts of eco-sabotage, such as the burning of the home of the randomly selected and innocent Scott family, are acts of blind rage. They are "blind" in that, in Kierkegaard’s words, they "tear out the eyes of the Reason." As a few moments of quite and sober reflection should make clear, the occasional torching of private homes will not end suburban sprawl, nor will the destruction of Vail ski lifts and lodges close down the skiing industry. Instead, such acts will turn the law against the perpetrators, and cast the suspicious eyes of the public upon "moderate" environmentalists who share the concerns of the eco-terrorists while they deplore the methods.

"Reason be damned, we have a world to save!," is a war-cry that is fated to fail, and furthermore is likely to destroy in its downfall, much that is of human and natural value. "Practical reason" implies the deliberative and informed devising of means to ends – of tactics and strategy, without which no battle or war or political campaign, worthy or otherwise, was ever won.

When the environmentalists combine their passion for the Earth with practical reason, employing both scientific knowledge and political savvy, and winning widespread public support, they win. However one may lament the development of such areas as Vail Colorado and the loss of Glen Canyon, we must remind ourselves that informed and well-coordinated citizen action kept the ski lifts and lodges out of Mineral King valley, and the dams out of the Grand Canyon. In fact, today federal and state governments are actually taking out dams and restoring wild rivers.

Finally, the radicals who cast reason and science aside in "defense of the Earth," discard their most effective weapon. For it is science which has most vividly portrayed the devastation that humanity has wrought on its home planet, and has most effectively indicated the grave implications of continuing down this road. Scientists such as Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson alerted us to the perils of radioactive and chemical contamination of the biosphere, and it was the weight of their evidence that captured our attention and concern. Today, it is the scientists who, at great public cost and investment, are measuring the loss of biodiversity and the anthropogenic alterations of the atmosphere, and it is the scientists who are projecting and publishing startling projections of these changes. (See our "On Behalf of Science," "Why be Reasonable?," and other pages in "No Mo Po Mo" – this site).

Blind rage and "ecotage" are not the way out of the present and the impending emergencies. Instead, the public must first reclaim its government from private and corporate interests. Educators must then restore scientific awareness and capacities of critical thinking to the youth. And informed citizens, in coordinated activity and through the use of open media and democratic institutions, must demand and bring about appropriate government action.

In short, an informed public must act deliberately, rationally and collectively in defense of the Earth. The tactics of the Earth Liberation Front can only provoke an angry public to turn on those who, through terroristic sabotage of property and endangerment of life, appoint themselves as "uncompromising defenders of the Earth." As a result, both democratic institutions and the Earth will be lost to humanity. 

Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .