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Earth First!

In response to:

Greens in America from the October 6, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

As a writer working in the West, I was very happy to have my book Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement reviewed by any publication in New York, and especially by The New York Review of Books [October 6]. However, I’d like to make it clear that the conclusions about the radical environmental group Earth First! which were reached in the review/ essay “Greens in America” belonged to the author, not to me.

Your reviewer, Daniel J. Kevles, wrote that my book was critical “of the aims of the organization but also sympathetic to some of its organizers.” I am, in fact, sympathetic to Earth First!’s aims—mainly to the idea of preserving biodiversity by protecting wilderness along ecological rather than political lines—but occasionally dubious about some of its tactics and followers.

That may have just been a misreading. My real disagreement with Kevles is based on his idea that Earth First! was an evolutionary dead end. Although the group’s penchant for ecosabotage got its members into rather bad trouble, before it hit the skids Earth First! significantly changed the parameters of debate within the conservation movement.

You have only to look at Interior Secretary Babbitt’s commitment to funding the National Biological Survey to realize that Earth First! was ahead of its time. As governor of Arizona, Babbitt was one of the few politicians to be amused rather than offended by Earth First!’s guerrilla theater. He was familiar with the work of Edward Abbey, Earth First!’s literary godfather, and has clearly been influenced by the biological perspective espoused by Abbey, Earth First! and an array of the nation’s best ecologists, biologists, and social theorists, including E. O. Wilson at Harvard and Michael Soule at UC Santa Cruz. That might make him look bad to the Wise Use movement, but it shows a degree of intellectual integrity we haven’t seen at Interior since the days of Stewart Udall.

During the course of my research, many mainstream environmentalists told me they too had been influenced by Earth First! They not only gave the group credit for catching onto the principles of conservation biology before anyone else, but they also spoke of the way the romantic, passionate ethos of Earth First! reminded them of why they had gotten into the movement in the first place. In fact, Earth First!, although it was mostly confined to the West, was the central radical movement of the ‘80s, a rather lackluster decade as far as rock and roll and revolution were concerned. At least some of the kids Kevles teaches were socialized by radical environmentalism the same way their parents had been by the antiwar movement.

I don’t mean to overrate Earth First!’s effectiveness or to gloss over the fact that their propensity for ecosabotage obscured their more serious message. The Sierra Club accomplishes a lot more, which is also made clear in the parts of my book that deal with the history of the mainstream movement. And Earth First! may well have encouraged the frightening Wise Use backlash made up of a weird amalgam of ranchers, miners, resource extraction corporations, and the Christian Right. Unfortunately, mainstream environmental groups picked up on the idea of preserving biodiversity, but lack Earth First!’s courage when it comes to facing down the right wing. Crippled by funding cutbacks, most groups are loath to take on the Wise Use movement and that, too, may be partially because they feel Earth First!’s controversial nature has left the movement as a whole open to criticism.

In any case, for good and perhaps for ill, Earth First! had a significant effect on environmental politics. That’s why I wrote the book. I can’t help being dismayed when people dismiss the importance of Earth First! within the history of the environmental movement because they can’t get over the fact that the group was funny, fractious and refused to play to a corporate audience. Just because they were radicals does not mean they were wrong or intellectually impoverished. In the case of Earth First! and the mainstream movement of the 1980s, it was quite the opposite. During this period, the radicals clearly had the intellectual edge.

Must the environmental movement be dull to be taken seriously? I hope not, or conservationists will be stuck preaching to the choir while the rainforests burn. Susan Zakin
Tucson, Arizona

Daniel J Kevles replies:

Susan Zakin’s book encourages “misreadings,” as she calls them. Her judgments of Earth First! are casual, oblique, and include unadmiring assessments such as: “Earth First! became a mishmash of deep ecology and spontaneous kick-out-the-jams, in-your-face blockading.” (p. 290) I am nevertheless happy to grant her her intent, however ambiguously her book expresses it. But Earth First!’s purposes went far beyond the defense of biodiversity, public attention to which, in any case, owed a great deal more to scientists like E. O. Wilson. The evidence in Zakin’s own book and elsewhere runs against the assertions in her letter about Earth First!’s effectiveness. It wasn’t radicalism as such that made the group appear wrong and intellectually impoverished. As an organization, Earth First! was a kind of participatory anarchy, a decentralized babble of loosely connected aims that Dave Foreman, who was perhaps its chief theorist, tried to summarize as “people…rebelling against technocracy, the anthropocentric imperialism of Western civilization.” (p. 298) Earth First’s simplistic antimodernism hardly won environmentalism friends among the public at large, and its identification with tree-spiking led other environmentalists to declare, as Zakin reports, “If Earth First! didn’t exist, the oil companies would have invented it.” (p. 305)

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