Advocates “Ecotage” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Edward Abbey published The Monkey Wrench Gang, which concerns the use of ecotage—acts of violence and sabotage designed to halt the pace of industrial development. The novel inspired radical environmentalists such as Dave Foreman, a cofounder of Earth First!, to take direct action against industries they considered ecologically destructive.

Summary of Event

Howie Wolke, Wolke, Howie a cofounder of the radical environmental group Earth First! Earth First! declared, “Edward Abbey may have inspired more people to defend wilderness than any other human in history.” A brilliant environmental essayist and social commentator, Abbey secured enduring fame with the 1975 publication of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. In the mid-1970’s, the United States was poised to appreciate one of the first works of ecofiction. The American public had been sensitized to environmental issues by more than a decade of countercultural revolt. Earth Day Earth Day 1970 and a flurry of federal environmental laws had alerted many Americans to ecological concerns. Ecological sabotage Monkeywrenching Environmental activism Abbey, Edward Foreman, Dave

A rambling, hilarious work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang is dedicated to Ned Lud, who, in the late 1700’s attempted to halt Great Britain’s industrial revolution by smashing factory machinery. The book turns the classic Western genre on its head. Where the usual tale glorifies civilization’s carriers who promote progress, Abbey sees the same landscape in the late twentieth century inhabited by a new cast of villains—the same heroes from the traditional Western story. Cattlemen destroy the public domain, consortia of mining and energy companies control politicians and access to land, and developers trample the remaining wilderness. All are abetted by a spineless federal government. Threatened with a fate as a national sacrifice area, the American West, a sacred land to Abbey, needs a New Age Paul Revere to alert a complacent citizenry to rally in its defense.

Abbey introduces four lovable characters, tracing their individual and collective transformations into eco-warriors, otherwise known as the Monkey Wrench Gang. Appalled at the modern West’s blind rush to industrialize, the foursome employs techniques of ecotage to slow or stop the destruction of the West’s remaining wilderness regions. “Ecotage,” a term meaning the use of illegal or violent tactics to halt economic growth, includes techniques such as tree spiking to discourage logging, burning billboards, pulling road survey stakes, and decommissioning bulldozers and other heavy equipment. The four crusaders even turn their anger against larger targets, including bridges and coal-mine railroad systems.

Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired radical environmentalists to use direct action to protect wilderness areas from destruction.

(Michael Hendrickson)

Spiced with raw language, violence, smoke, and fire, The Monkey Wrench Gang is nevertheless infused with a light, breezy, audience-pleasing tone. By using romance and poignant descriptions of desert beauty, and by using the quartet as an example of what concerned Americans might do to save the wilderness, Abbey creates a rare piece of literature: a book with the power to inspire people to action. Leaving a trail of industrial and philosophical debris in their wake, his four heroes range freely across the American Southwest.

Abbey’s environmentalist hero, George Washington Hayduke, serves his nation honorably in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret and a prisoner of war. Returning to a soured United States in the 1970’s, Hayduke suffers as many returning veterans did. He seeks escape through violence and alcoholism and by returning to the one place his soul felt at peace: the southwestern desertscape. To Hayduke’s consternation, even that isolated land is undergoing change at the hands of multinational conglomerates and greedy developers. It is time to fight back. The book’s four main characters, Hayduke, river-runner Seldom Seen Smith, Doc Sarvis, and Bonnie Abzug, meet on a Colorado River rafting expedition below an infamous symbol of environmental destruction, the Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon Dam The dam looms large in the minds of both Abbey and his characters as a blight to be erased from the West’s map.

In book after book, Edward Abbey wrote about the vital connection between wilderness and freedom. From The Brave Cowboy (1956) Brave Cowboy, The (Abbey) to Fire on the Mountain (1962) Fire on the Mountain (Abbey) to the widely acclaimed Desert Solitaire (1968), Desert Solitaire (Abbey) Abbey defended the individual’s right to live free from institutional restraints and in harmony with nature. The American West, with its broad expanses and abundant wilderness, loomed as the best place to realize this dream. What connects much of Abbey’s earlier writing with The Monkey Wrench Gang is the sense that this last best place, the American West, faced a certain future of environmental degradation unless decisive action was taken on its behalf. In critic Gregory McNamee’s words, Abbey’s “flag is raised so that the fires of revolt may be kindled.”

Significance

To students of American environmental history, The Monkey Wrench Gang remains one of the most influential novels of the modern West. Transformed into more than a book, it has become a symbol spawning philosophical debate and inspiring political action. In the publication’s aftermath, Abbey modestly called his creation an “adventure story with an environmental theme,” but he admitted that the book’s monkeywrenching represented personal wish fulfillment. Above all, Abbey hoped the novel would be entertaining. In short, the book’s eventual cult status hardly seemed anticipated by the author.

Although the novel may be read as a hilarious, fast-paced farce, it also poses serious, troubling questions that continue to haunt the modern environmental movement: Can an individual effectively act to defend the besieged environment? Does violence have a place in defense of the ecosystem? Abbey’s overall intent has troubled the author’s biographers and commentators since the book’s publication. Is Abbey prescribing violence and anarchy or merely hoping to raise his readers’ environmental consciousness?

Early readers regarded Abbey’s intent as satirical, not as an outright call to action in defense of the threatened West. The Glen Canyon Dam, finished in 1963, always loomed as the ultimate target for Abbey’s ecoraiders. The loss of Glen Canyon, which was part of a compromise that saved Colorado’s Echo Park from a similar fate, always troubled environmentalists. The dam, which created Lake Powell, backed the Colorado River up for several hundred miles, flooding some of the Southwest’s most beautiful and unique landforms. An ecological disaster, Lake Powell raised Abbey’s ire in many nonfiction essays as well. Because Abbey does not destroy the Glen Canyon Dam in The Monkey Wrench Gang, some early Abbey critics regarded his intent as benign, an effort designed merely to alert his readers to some of the West’s environmental problems. An early biographer, Garth McCann, McCann, Garth concluded that it was unlikely that Abbey advocated “grand-scale sabotage,” for fear of inviting the inevitable overreaction from the establishment.

Despite his sardonic tone, Abbey is “deadly serious,” according to McCann. Abbey wants to shock and surprise his readers into action or at least concern. The Monkey Wrench Gang was based, in part, on the real-life adventures of individuals and small groups operating in the desert Southwest in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the novel, as the foursome organized, they developed an operating philosophy that helped the reader determine Abbey’s actual views and intent. Inevitably, the question arose as to what a small group could accomplish in the face of an enemy so large and powerful. Bonnie Abzug remarked, “They [the industrial state] have the big machines . . . the law . . . and courts, judges, and prisons.” To this, Hayduke replied that at that very minute, ecoraiders throughout the country were fighting back in small groups or in twos and threes. The strength of the movement was its invisibility. A large, public organization would make an ecotage band vulnerable to government repression.

As the foursome made their plans, they decided to limit their attacks to machinery, avoiding contact with human beings. However, the overall question of violence seemed to haunt Abbey for much of his career. In 1968, in Desert Solitaire, Abbey took a moderate or balanced approach to progress. Both the city and the wilderness are necessary, he argued. Leave the wilderness alone and keep “industrialism where it is.” By 1976, a more radical Edward Abbey seemed to be emerging. In a symposium in Vail, Colorado, Abbey labeled the West’s position “hopeless.” Instead of planned growth, concerned citizens should “wage war against the industrialization in the Rocky Mountain West.” Abbey enjoyed shocking his audience, whether through writing or in a public forum, and if his statements caused citizens to rethink their position on growth, then he had clearly achieved his philosophical goals.

The increasingly conservative political atmosphere of the late 1970’s, coupled with the mainstream environmental movement’s absorption by the Washington political establishment, dashed the hopes of many eager environmentalists. In this context, The Monkey Wrench Gang began a transformation from novel to icon of the new radical environmental movement.

The 1970’s witnessed a surge of interest in environmental causes. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, with countercultural influence on the wane, the environmental movement remained an issue that could unite both political activists and people of less liberal backgrounds. Dave Foreman represented one such individual. From a conservative Texas upbringing, Foreman nevertheless became passionately involved in defending the rights of nature. As a member of the Wilderness Society, he worked as both a field representative and a Washington insider. By the late 1970’s, Foreman and other young environmentalists had come to a realization: The environmental movement desperately needed new energy and tactics. Traditional mainstream groups such as the Sierra Club, Sierra Club the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Society and the Friends of the Earth Friends of the Earth had gone stale, serving their own bureaucracies more than the natural world they ostensibly defended. By emphasizing political moderation and compromise, the major conservation organizations had become co-opted by corporate interests, and, in Foreman’s words, “when the chips were down, conservation still lost out to industry.” What had moderation and political tact accomplished?

The Sagebrush Rebellion, Sagebrush Rebellion a reaction against environmental initiatives led by conservative American westerners, also raged across the region in the late 1970’s. The disappointing results of the national Roadless Area Review and Evaluation Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) study, to determine which areas would be allocated to wilderness or opened to development, led to further disillusionment. Throughout the RARE II process, environmentalists had crafted a careful, balanced stance and were repaid by losing much precious wilderness to developers.

Born of such frustrations and inspired by pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold’s Leopold, Aldo land ethic, the emerging deep ecology movement, and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Earth First! encouraged ecotage to slow the fevered pace of economic growth. Earth First! followed the example of one of the most extreme—and successful—reform movements in American history, the radical antislavery movement, whose slogan had proclaimed, No Compromise with Slavery. Showing a sensitivity to history, Earth First! mimicked abolitionism in choosing its rallying cry, No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth. Earth First! members and sympathizers destroyed bulldozers, spiked trees, pulled road survey stakes, and employed tactics of civil disobedience to make the point that further ecological compromises endangered all life on Earth. In addition, Earth First! made strong public arguments favoring deep ecology Deep ecology principles. Deep ecology criticizes approaches to environmental issues held by the mainstream conservation groups as overly human-centered or anthropocentric. Deep ecologists contend that all of the natural world has intrinsic rights.

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang influenced both the tactics and spirit of extreme environmental groups like Earth First! Abbey addressed and supported Earth First! gatherings in the 1980’s, contributed prefaces and essays to the group’s publications, and basked in the glow of serving as one of the major inspirations behind the work of Earth First! “Monkeywrenching” had become a code word for ecotage. Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, and other moving spirits in Earth First! heaped credit on Abbey for “offending the most offensive among us, for being a thorn in the side of industrial tyrants . . . for leaving the world a bit wilder than it would have been without him.”

As the radical environmental movement’s most public figure, Abbey exposed his large readership to biocentric principles. Humans, he contended in 1982, have no right to use more than a portion of the planet. Nature, he asserted, rests on a moral par with—if not above—human beings. Although other thinkers may have developed deep ecology’s scientific and theoretical foundations in more detail, The Monkey Wrench Gang and Abbey’s later essays served as a blueprint for radical action in support of the environment. Ironically, by the 1990’s, many of the unifying principles of Earth First! had filtered out to reinvigorate some of the very same mainstream environmental groups against which Earth First! had originally reacted. Ecological sabotage Monkeywrenching Environmental activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. 1968. Reprint. New York: Ballantine, 1979. An indispensable introduction to Abbey’s nonfiction essay style and an important vista on his thinking in the decade before the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Hayduke Lives! Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. Sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, published after the author’s death in 1989. The novel features a sympathetic portrayal of the radical environmental group Earth First! The same four characters who struck fear into the hearts of Western developers run roughshod again.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Monkey Wrench Gang. New York: Avon Books, 1975. The lively novel that altered the course of the American environmental movement toward a more radical direction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hepworth, James, and Gregory McNamee. Resist Much, Obey Little: Some Notes on Edward Abbey. Tucson. Ariz.: Harbinger House, 1985. A series of short articles, interviews, and remembrances of Edward Abbey by fifteen writers, including some of the author’s close friends. A good source for gaining a personal glimpse of Abbey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCann, Garth. Edward Abbey. Boise State University Western Writers Series no. 29. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1977. A short biography of Abbey written immediately following the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang. McCann interprets some of the major themes in Abbey’s fiction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. An intellectual history of the broadening of ethical concern for the natural world written by a leading environmental historian. Nash credits Abbey for being a major popularizer of this important trend.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ronald, Ann. The New West of Edward Abbey. 1982. 2d ed. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002. Ronald’s study is a literary history of Abbey and includes only scattered biographical material. All of Abbey’s major novels through 1982 are extensively summarized. Ronald sees Abbey as a romantic writer who tried to envision a better world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zakin, Susan. Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement. Reprint. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. A colorful journalistic analysis of the origins and influence of the radical environmental group Earth First! Strong discussion of the personalities and biographical details of the movement’s leadership. A worthwhile study that does not ignore Earth First!’s relationship with other environmental organizations.

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