Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

Ecoteurs are particularly active in Europe. Scandinavian environmentalists have destroyed drilling equipment at one potential radioactive disposal site. West German Greens have repeatedly vented their rage against nuclear power plants, toppling 165 electrical towers leading to these plants in 1986 alone.

The problem is so bad that the Bundestag (West German parliament) recently expanded anti-terrorist legislation specifically to include the destruction of electrical towers. It appears that ecotage has even made its way to the Soviet Union, where a Russian version of Earth First! is said to be carrying out monkey-wrenching Soviet-style.

“Four radical environmentalists placed their bodies in front of a bulldozer punching a road through an Oregon forest. They were arrested, but others soon took their place.”

This catalog of ship sinkings and dam breakings is not intended to suggest that the groups involved in ecotage share a common ideology or even a common goal. On the contrary, there are distinct ideological differences between Germany’s Greens, animal-rights activists, Earth First!, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

But the extent of radical environmental resistance proves that the battle for the world’s ecology is being joined on a broad front, with ecotage as the common center of the conflict. “As the earth’s condition gets worse,” says Darryl Cherney, an Earth First! activist, “radical environmentalists will become more aggressive in defense of the planet.”

Needless to say, mainstream environmental organizations reject these tactics. Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation, has denounced Earth First! as a terrorist organization, saying he sees “no fundamental difference between destroying a river and destroying a bulldozer.”

Even Greenpeace, an organization that is no stranger to controversial direct action, suggested that members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society were acting like terrorists when they sank the Icelandic whaling ships. Leaders of other national environmental organizations, while not quite so vituperative, also consider Earth First! to be the bete noire of the environmental movement.

Most radical environmentalists remain unfazed by this criticism. “It doesn’t even bother me whether people call us terrorists,” says Barbara Dugleby, a Texas activist who has been arrested numerous times for ecological civil disobedience. “We are still getting our message across to those who are sympathizers, and the more sympathizers we reach, the stronger we become, and in the end I think people will realize that the terrorists are really the people we have been fighting, the destroyers of the earth.” Behind the unmannerly rhetoric, however, the national leadership is in some instances perversely happy Earth First! exists.

“Frankly, it makes us look moderate,” says Bob Hattoy, the Southern California representative of the Sierra Club. “When Earth First! is out there demanding 100 million acres of wilderness and we know we can only get ten million, I can turn to a congressman and say, ‘Look, we’re the voice of reason.’”

The founders of Earth First! apparently had something like this role in mind for their new environmental activism — at least at the beginning. “When I helped found Earth First!…” writes Wolke, “I thought that it would be the ‘sacrificial lamb’ of the environmental movement; we would make the Sierra Club look moderate by taking positions that most people would consider ridiculous.”

Up to now, radical and moderate environmentalists have lived in this kind of surly symbiosis. Through ecotage and civil disobedience, groups like Earth First! have focused public attention on environmental issues, often while lambasting traditional environmentalists for being “wimps.”

The large environmental organizations, while denouncing the radicals’ confrontational activities, have then been able to use their ample finances to take the campaign to Congress or the courts with the impetus of public support the radicals generated. The recent controversy over the spotted owl is being played out along these lines.

Whatever the attitude between them, in some ways the mainstream is becoming less relevant to the agenda of radical environmentalists, as their various successes have won them some notoriety and funding. Earth First!’s Biodiversity Task Force, for instance, under the aggressive leadership of Jasper Carlton, has been able to bring its own successful lawsuits on endangered species issues independent of the traditional and more cautious sources of environmental litigation such as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Despite its growing influence, size, and independence, there have been very few principled attempts to understand the radical environmental movement. Those who have written on the subject have been uninformed at best and malicious at worst.

Ignore the environment for long enough, and it may protect itself with a Green Rage. The environmentalist simmer will eventually boil. Do nothing for long enough, and saving the planet will become a multifaceted active confrontation.

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