Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Get Out the Monkey Wrenches?

I spent three years teaching at a Christian college near New York City. I wish I could get that time back, but it is gone forever. (Then I went off and taught another three years at a different Christian college. I finally learned my lesson and went secular for the rest of my career.) The college in New York claimed to be Christian but it was at least at that time just a front for the Republican Party. While I was there, it was quietly Republican. Years after I left, it projected an image of extreme right-wing doctrine.

While on the biology faculty at the small college near New York, I taught environmentalism. I did this partly because it was the only honest thing to do, especially among people who supposedly believed that God created the Earth and everything that is in it. Also, I was not the only faculty member doing so. Of us four biologists, none of us taught that God wanted humans to grab whatever they desire from the natural world and leave it bleeding, battered, and gasping as it awaited the Second Coming.

But most of the students at that college were not at all receptive to environmentalism. I think it was because they had never been allowed to think about it as they grew up. Imagine my surprise when, one day, I was in the computer lab writing something (few faculty had office computers), when the student assistant was telling the Learning Resources director all about this wonderful group he had just found out about, and which he admired greatly: Greenpeace. He admired their strong defense of the Earth and their willingness to take decisive, some might say extreme, actions. If Greenpeace is right about human abuse of God’s Earth, then mildness is not an appropriate response. Despite the repressive fundamentalism of that college, the students occasionally thought for themselves.

Another group besides Greenpeace that takes actions that some consider extreme is Earth First!

What I used to think about extremist environmental actions was that they were doomed to failure. The civil authorities would just sweep the protestors away and everything would go back to business as usual. Indeed, it was possible that their antics would turn people otherwise receptive to environmental views against the entire movement.

And this is exactly what Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, used to believe, as he describes in his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. He worked with and for conservation organizations that took what they considered a more practical approach to environmental issues. Groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and many others would meet with leaders of government and industry and try to convince them that sound environmental policy was profitable for everyone. This seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Only it didn’t work out that way very often. Foreman describes his experiences with the extreme right wing Sagebrush Rebellion ranchers who wanted to take federal grazing land away from the taxpayers and keep it for themselves. The Sagebrush people created violent confrontations, and they considered mainstream environmental organizations to be their enemies.

The conciliatory approach wasn’t working very well. If you are part of a conciliatory environmentalist group, the right-wing extremists hate you as much as if you were a radical. So, for all the difference it makes, you might as well be part of a radical environmentalist group. They will hate you, but they would hate you no matter what. And this is still the case today.

This is why Foreman and others started Earth First! Back when he worked with mainstream organizations, he “was told to be rational, not emotional…I would lose credibility if I let my emotions show…But, damn it, I am an animal. A living being of flesh and blood, storm and fury. The oceans of the Earth course through my veins, the winds of the sky fill my lungs…I am alive! I am not…a cog in the industrial world…When a chainsaw slices into the heartwood of a two-thousand-year-old Coast Redwood, it’s slicing into my guts…” He and a few others decided, let the rage flow.

It seemed hopeless that anyone would pay attention to them. But when they staged a protest on Glen Canyon Dam, not destructive but very, very visible, they got in trouble but also got worldwide attention. Today, Earth First! associate organizations are found in many countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic (which did not even exist when Earth First! was founded), France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, New Zealand, the Philippines, Poland, Slovakia (which also did not yet exist), Spain, the UK, as well as the US.

One of the inspirations of the group was Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. This was a fictional organization that carried out pranks against corporations and governments. The name comes from “throwing a monkey wrench into the works,” a wrench useful in manual labor but which, when thrown into the workings of a machine, can cause the whole mechanism to lock up. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of damage results. Foreman writes on page 23, “A monkey wrench thrown into the gears of the machine may not stop it. But it might delay it, make it cost more. And if feels good to put it there.”

Yes, I have to keep my emotions in their proper place when I do scientific research. But I am not just a scientist. I am also a passionate lover of the Earth. My role is not to stage protests, but to write, mostly books, but also blog essays like this one. I have retired from the academic world and feel too tired to participate in monkey wrench protests. But I am glad Earth First! is still at work, a counterbalance to the greenwashing [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing] of corporations that just pretend to be environmentally sound.

I suppose it is appropriate that I post this essay on midterm election day. In this election, environmental issues are mostly ignored.

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