Radical Environmentalists

Who Are These People And What Are They Doing Here?


The environment is in trouble. That much we know, and we sympathize with it. We also know about tree-huggers, but they do not seem to carry the world's sympathy. Reason: radical environmentalists are not effectively convincing people to see things their way because instead of promoting environmentalism, they attack anti-environmentalism.

First of all, what is a radical environmentalist? Radical environmentalists, according to stereotype, are the vegetarians, the tree-huggers, the occasionally violent protesters. They adhere to strange and abnormal ideas like destroying civilization entirely, and using AIDS as a solution to overpopulation. This stereotype for the most part holds true, although only a few of them actually adhere to the overpopulation idea.

Why hug trees? Radical environmentalists hug trees and protest because they ascribe to a belief system known as deep ecology. Deep ecologists believe "all life, which includes both human and nonhuman forms, has value itself." Humans have "no right to reduce the richness and diversity of the natural world except for vital human needs (Cramer, 5)." When deep ecologists say "vital needs" they do not mean television. They refer to a very simple set of needs; the simpler and more primitive, the better (7). For example, food.

The biggest difference between deep ecology and other beliefs is the idea that humans are just as significant as, say, water voles. Typical belief systems are anthropocentric, with man at the center of importance and being. Deep ecology is biocentric, placing all life at the center of importance and being (Lee, 37-38). To a deep ecologist, sawing down a tree or shooting a deer would be just as evil as murdering another human.

Possibly the most active group of deep ecologists, self-proclaimed radical environmentalists, is Earth First! This organization (motto: No compromise in defense of Mother Earth) was founded on April 4th, 1980 by Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, Mike Roselle, Bart Koehler, and Ron Kezar (Manes, 67-68). The preamble to their first newsletter is evidence of their belief in deep ecology: "the central idea of Earth First! is that humans have no divine right to subdue the Earth, that we are merely one of several million forms of life on this planet." (Manes, 74)

Their first action, as opposed to writing and talking, was "the cracking of Glen Canyon Dam (Lee, 45)" in 1981. This particular dam was a proverbial pebble in the proverbial shoe of environmentalists for years. Not only that, but in Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, a story of radical environmentalists who burn bulldozers and other such exploits, the gang "dreamed of exploding Glen Canyon Dam." (Lee, 44) They started with a traditional demonstration, with "placards and speeches" to occupy the security forces. Meanwhile, five people climbed the dam's guard fence and ran to the center of the dam, carrying with them a "one hundred pound bundle of plastic." They let the bundle unfurl over the side of the dam, creating a three-hundred foot "crack" in the dam face. This event "made a political statement, no one was arrested, and the authorities were made to look foolish." A success, by their standards (Lee, 45-46).

This event set the stage for future events. Theodore Kaczynski, when identified as the prime suspect for the Unabomber bombings, was reported by ABC News to be linked to Earth First! They implied that Earth First! had "supplied the names and targets for certain timber-related bombings." The deep ecologists were upset at this negative coverage (Cramer, 178). The very idea that it could be true may be based on a stereotype, but stereotypes are based partially on truth; they have to come from somewhere. Earth First! may not have been tied to the Unabomber, but as a radical group preaching "no compromise," the possibility that they may have is not too far-fetched.

The Monkey Wrench Gang's actions led to another concept: ecotage, the sabotaging of nature so it cannot be destroyed. Earth First!ers would stand in front of bulldozers to prevent destruction of nature (Manes, 86) and sit in trees to prevent them from being cut down (Manes, 100). Foreman authored the book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, which became a staple of environmental activists. Roselle describes another purpose of the book: "We knew that a lot of ecotage was going on at the time, but it was being reported as 'mindless vandalism.' Earth First! brought it out of the closet to be reported for what it was." Basically a "how-to manual," the book described how to "decommission bulldozers, pull out survey stakes, spike trees, and generally harass and delay resource industry plans (Manes, 82)." The tree spikers have been the biggest bane to the logging industry. Their spikes are quite dangerous to the saws used to mill the lumber. Some companies have purchased metal-detection equipment at great cost, but others have not. Saw blades have shattered on encountering a tree spike. In several instances, tree spiking with notice has resulted in the area being forsaken by loggers. And even the loggers with metal detection equipment cannot log in peace, as new spikes have been developed that are not made of metal.

In 1987 a worker in a mill was "lacerated by fragments from a saw that shattered on a tree spike (Manes, 177)." This event brought up the issue of the importance of logging. Is saving trees worth injuring humans? Even though the spike was certainly not placed in the tree with intent to injure anyone, the fact remains that it is a possibility. But the reason spikers persist is, again, their belief that a tree is a life, a human is a life, and a life is a life is a life. "Many tree spikers would argue that the U.S. Forest Service does not and can not 'own' the old growth trees any more than a southern plantation owner could own slaves (Wuerthner qtd. in Manes, 176)." To their eyes, loggers are mass murderers, which would bring up the issue of capital punishment. Environmentalists are not in a position to mete out their justice on these offenders, but they are trying their darndest to prevent the offense from happening. This is their logic.

A newspaper editorial asked, "Does a road across public land or a mine on public land do more damage than spikes in trees, or tires ruined, or a life marred by injury or taken (Manes, 175)?" Probably without realizing it, the author of this editorial has addressed the belief system of radical environmentalists again. The issue to radical environmentalists is not how much damage, but rather what is being damaged. Spikes in trees do damage, but they are damaging industry equipment designed to damage nature. Tires are manmade things designed, usually, to transport a pollutant vehicle, even a destructive vehicle like an earth-mover. The human life issue, however, is another thing altogether. Taking a life in return for taking a life again brings up capital punishment, which should be handled by the government and not environmentalist groups. But the government is doing nothing, primarily because the people represented by our republican government do not believe in deep ecology. So the environmentalists view this as a grave oversight, and realize that if anything is going to be done to prevent murdering trees, they are going to have to do it themselves or convince other people to join them.

Or both. The tree spikers, dam crackers, bulldozer stand-in-front-of-ers, and tree sitter-inners have been doing it themselves, but at the same time they are trying to convince others to join them. The reason for, say, standing in front of a bulldozer is only partly to prevent the bulldozer from doing anything harmful to the environment. The environmentalists are not irrational people who think that standing in front of one bulldozer will solve the global problem. So what are they doing?

They are trying to alert the public of this problem. Political scientist and Washington University professor Gary Miller mentions that a successful social protest will earn media coverage and alert the public to the problem, which is exactly what standing in front of a bulldozer is trying to do. If they stood in front of a bulldozer and authorities decided to never use the bulldozer again, but no one else heard about it, the bulldozer stand-in-front-of-ers would have failed in their primary goal. While they do want the bulldozer out of commission, they want more for others to realize that it should be.

Have they succeeded? Are they helping the cause of environmentalism? Everyone knows about environmentalism, because it's everywhere. And everyone even knows about radical environmentalism, because they have earned lots of media coverage. So yes, the public is aware of them and their cause. Also, some of their extreme solutions do have more lasting effects. Tree spiking, for example, destroys logging equipment, which is costly and takes time to replace. As was mentioned above, in one case, the tree spikers' spikes scared the loggers from mining the area, and as a consequence the area remained unharmed.

But some evidence would indicate that they have not been helping their cause. While the public is aware of them and their cause, they have not necessarily done a good job of explaining their cause, and reasonable people always scorn unreasonable radicalism. Since the radicals spend most of their time attacking anti-environmentalism rather than promoting environmentalism, people see no reason to sign up. Environmentalists are degraded and mocked by the public for their unorthodox views, such as on bumper stickers. "Hug A Logger" is one such sticker. There may be a sticker saying "Hug A Tree And By The Way This Sticker Is Made Of Paper." If there isn't, there should be. The destructive actions of the radical environmentalists are a turn-off to the public. The majority of people do not see sawing down a tree or shooting deer as a crime, so the destruction of private property is unwarranted.

Miller describes an interesting aspect of presidential campaigns. Quite frequently, the more moderate candidate of the two wins; the moderates will vote for whoever is closest to them, and may well be the deciding factor if liberals and conservatives are nearly equal. This phenomenon applies to the radical environmentalists as well. In the public's eye, the more moderate environmentalists, who advocate peaceful things like recycling, are to be preferred over the radicals. The moderate environmentalists' actions promote the public's involvement in saving the earth from entropy, whereas the radical environmentalists' actions demonstrate various means of stopping the earth-destroyers.

By definition, most people are not radical. So while standing in front of a bulldozer or chained to a tree may promote a cause, it does not influence the average person. Very few people are going to stand in front of bulldozers because they agree with the cause too. Such an action, to them, is not tangible, not attainable. Something more moderate, such as recycling, is attainable. That they can do.

Some people, such as Martin Lewis, think that not only are the radical environmentalists not helping, they are posing a definite threat to the cause of environmentalism:

"The most direct way in which eco-extremists threaten the environment is simply by fueling the anti-environmental countermovement. When green radicals like Christopher Manes (1990) call for the total destruction of civilization, many begin to listen to the voices of reaction. Indeed, the mere linking of environmental initiatives to radical groups such as Earth First! often severely dampens what would otherwise be widespread public support (see Gabriel 1990:64). (6)"

Lewis states that when "radicalism deepens within the ecological movement, the oppositional anti-ecological forces accordingly gain strength (6)." Basically, the more radical the environmentalists get, the more plausible their opposition sounds. This idea is itself plausible.

Radical environmentalism may also harm the cause by pulling the entire environmental movement into extremism. Its success at gaining news coverage has influenced the public's conception of the environmental movement. If, as Lewis fears, "green extremism captures the environmental movement's upper hand," the public would be likely to disagree with the radicalism of the movement, and thus disagree with environmentalism entirely -- a dangerous state of affairs.

So, simply due to the radical environmentalists' choice of "attack" over "promote," they are not reaching the public. Which is a shame, because the environment does need help, regardless of a person's views on anthropocentrism vs. biocentrism. Perhaps if they promoted instead of attacking, they would not be radical.


Works Cited

Phillip E. Cramer. Deep Environmental Politics: The Role of Radical Environmentalism in Crafting American Environmental Policy. Praeger Publishers, Westport; CT: 1998

Ellis, Richard. The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS: 1998

Gundersen, Adolf G. The Environmental Promise of Democratic Deliberation. University of Wisconsin Press; Madison WS: 1995

Lee, Martha F. Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York: 1995

Lewis, Martin W. Green Delusions. Duke University Press; US: 1992

Manes, Christopher. Green Rage. Little, Brown & Company; Boston, MA: 1990

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution. Hill and Wang; New York, NY: 1993The Compendium

© 1998-2022 Zach Bardon
Last modified 7.19.2019
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