“Political compromise has no place in the defense of Earth.”
Excerpt from an Earth First! Memo by Dave Forman and Howie Wolke
In 1980 Dave Foreman, Mike Roselle, Howie Wolke, Bart Koehler, and Ron Kezar founded the radical environmental movement known as Earth First! (EF!). Prior to the founding, these men had each worked as staffers in mainstream environmental lobby groups, such as Wilderness Affairs. Becoming disappointed with these organizations' focus on utilizing formal governmental channels to affect environmental protection policy, these five friends began to theorize a different way of engaging in environmental activism. On a camping trip in Mexico’s Pinacate Desert, they developed the ideology that would largely define the EF! movement up until the early 1990s.
These founders were primarily influenced by Deep Ecology, a theoretical movement that encourages non-anthropocentrism, or the refusal to center and prioritize human beings. Adherents of Deep Ecology see each living thing or biological being as inherently valuable and equal. In this line of thought, a human is worth no more than a tree, and a cow is worth no more than a seaweed plant. Rather, these things are deeply interconnected and interdependent, and hurting one means necessarily injuring the other. Because of this, EF! was originally uninterested in social issues that dealt with human beings, like civil or LGBTQ+ rights. Sometimes this viewpoint led the founders to make explicitly misanthropic statements that expressed hope for a decline in the human population, or a violent retaliation by mother earth against humans.
Over time, the movement and its founders also became more influenced by anarchist principles. Some of the most foundational beliefs of anarchism “are that human freedom is paramount, that institutionalized authority represses that freedom, and that a society without institutionalized authority – in particular, without government – is both feasible and desirable.” Along these lines, the EF! founders advocated for the rights of local and indigenous groups to manage the land they resided on. They believed that local residents are privy to a far more intimate knowledge of (and love for) their land than a distant government could possibly have. This decentralized theory of land and environmental management was mirrored in the structure of the EF! itself. Believing that centralization and hierarchy breed corruption, the movement formed as a loose network of autonomous environmental collectives and activists that subscribed to the EF!’s philosophy. This allowed the movement to spread easily across multiple borders; as the late 20th century rolled on, EF!-affiliated groups sprung up in the U.K., Germany, Australia, France, Holland, Mexico, Canada, and beyond. Although no official membership list exists, it has been estimated that the movement had upwards of 15,000 members in the 1980s.
In terms of tactics, the founders of EF! proposed a mix of non-violent civil disobedience and more violent “monkeywrenching,” or destruction/ sabotage of the tools and machinery used to extract natural resources. Tree-spiking was a particularly controversial monkeywrenching tactic that the EF! promoted in its early days. Others included the occupying of corporate buildings, the destruction of bulldozers, and even the sabotaging of nuclear plants (although this particular plan was never successful).
In the late 1980s, intraparty debates over the effectiveness of these more radical direct action tactics escalated. The question of whether or not the movement was willing to injure human beings for the sake of wildlife protection weighed heavily on the group. Members like Judi Bari were deeply concerned that using violence would alienate average people from the environmental movement. Bari was intimately aware of how controversial violent tactics were, as the FBI had labeled the EF! an ecoterrorist organization, many of their members had been imprisoned, and she herself had been the target of a car bomb attack. Throughout the early 1990s, as a popular and highly visible member of the group, Bari helped to reorient its diverse members toward a sole reliance on nonviolent civil disobedience. Although still today the movement does not openly criticize monkeywrenching, it does not condone or actively align itself with this technique.
Tension also developed around the founders’ belief that environmental issues should always be granted preeminence over social ones, as many of the groups’ members were also devoted to feminism, the anti-war movement, the labor movement, the battle against AIDS and so on. As one author explained it, “Too often ecocentrists began conversations by pointing an accusatory finger at everyone in the room, uninterested in their particular stories.” Judi Bari was again, an important figure in the movement who leveled this kind of criticism against the founders. As a long-time labor organizer, Bari was devoted to a diverse set of social justice issues that relied on more of a humanist orientation. Bari worked to, for instance, bridge the gap between lumber workers and the environmental movement. Instead of threatening or harming these workers, she attempted to convince them that they held common interests with the environmental activists. Through initiatives like this one, Bari helped to transform the image and message of the EF! in the early 1990s. Although this caused many of the early Earth First!ers to leave and join still-more radical organizations, it also granted room for a host of new members who were proponents of humanism and non-violence.
Today, the movement continues to publish an Earth First! Journal and to hold an annual Round River Rendezvous, where radical environmentalists from all around North America can gather to share experiences, exchange best practices, and so on. Earth First!ers can still frequently be seen blockading logging roads, chaining themselves to endangered trees, using performance art to educate the public as to the dangers of extractivism, and so on.
The history and transformation of the EF! movement raises an interesting set of questions: Why is non-violent protest often ineffective? What is the importance of considering human issues in the context of environmental ones? Why do activists sometimes feel estranged from governing bodies, and what can be done to remedy this? These questions shed light on just how diverse and complex participation in the public sphere can be. Understanding this diversity is crucial to theorizing what more effective public participation and democracy might look like in the future.
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