Anarchy in the USA

American Dreams: The World’s Dirtiest Eco-Fighters

Edward Abbey’s madcap Monkey Wrench Gang inspired the likes of Earth First!—and the incoherent motives of both radical groups led to pretty much nothing.

Buddy Mays/Alamy

At the first meeting of Earth First!, the founders set goals, “radical in style,” designed to reinvigorate environmental activism. All but one of the stated goals were rhetorical in nature. They included “to demonstrate that the Sierra Club and its allies were raging moderates,” “to give an outlet to many hard-line conservationists who were no longer active because of disenchantment,” and “to fight, with uncompromising passion, for Earth.” Only one of the goals formulated during that 1980 meeting was practical in spirit:

To inspire others to carry out activities straight from the pages of The Monkey Wrench Gang (a novel of environmental sabotage by Edward Abbey), even though Earth First!, we agreed, would itself be ostensibly law abiding.

This was also the one goal that would generate most of the public interest surrounding Earth First! in the years to come. Abbey’s book became not only a spiritual guide but a practical one as well, filled with detailed instructions: how to knock down a billboard, jam the crankshaft of a Caterpillar tractor, derail a coal train. In its inaugural coordinated action, Earth First! enacted a scene from the novel. Activists unrolled a 300-foot-long polythene black plastic sheet from the parapet over Glen Canyon Dam, creating the illusion that a huge crack had been drilled into the dam. Edward Abbey himself attended the stunt and gave a speech.

Abbey remained the patron saint of the movement and The Monkey Wrench Gang its scripture. The book became to radical environmentalism what The Communist Manifesto was to Marxism, Uncle Toms Cabin was to abolitionists, and Silent Spring to the mainstream environmental movement in the ‘60s. One might expect such an influential book to contain not only practical lessons and revolutionary gusto but a coherent ethos: to make a clear argument for radical, often violent resistance. But there is a glaring difference between Abbey’s book and others that have inspired political movements. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel. Novels, unlike essays or polemics, are flimsy vessels for political arguments. Fiction thrives in contradiction, uncertainty, doubt; political tracts demand clarity and total self-assurance. Despite spawning a movement, Abbey’s novel is notably incoherent when it comes to the question that matters most—the question of motivation. Why one should destroy tractors and bulldozers? Will doing so save the planet? The Monkey Wrench Gang evades clear answers.

Abbey’s characters are themselves incoherent when it comes to speaking about their motivations, in the rare moments they are called upon to do so. The most articulate of the four members of the Monkey Wrench Gang is Doc Sarvis, a general surgeon in Albuquerque with a penchant for chomping on cigars and toppling billboards. When pushed to explain his rationale, he credits his suspicion that environmental degradation is contributing to a medical emergency: “It’s seeing too much insulted tissue under the microscope…Acute leukemia on the rise. Lung cancer. I think the evil is in the food, in the noise, in the crowding, in the stress, in the water, in the air.” But Abbey gives more space to the doctor’s cigar habit than his health concerns.

George Hayduke, a former Green Beret and Vietnam veteran, the most violent and ambitious of the quadrumvirate, espouses a vague libertarian ethos that is more self-serving than ideologically consistent. “Freedom, not safety, is the highest good,” he intones, as he chugs a six-pack while driving 70 mph. In more sober moments, Hayduke likens the desecration of the desert to the destruction of Vietnam: “When I…found out they were trying to do the same thing to the West that they did to that little country over there, I got mad.” The connection between environmental activism and Vietnam was common in the early ‘70s, when the Sierra Club Bulletin portrayed the war, like the conquering of the American frontier, as a symptom of America’s over-reliance on technology and industrial power—but the connection is not explored in any depth by Hayduke or Abbey. Mainly Hayduke seems committed to exploding things. “More destructive than bright,” observes Abbey.

Seldom Seen Smith, a jack Mormon with three wives and five children, also espouses libertarian, even anarchist beliefs (“He didn’t believe in banks”). But his motivation seems to derive more forcefully from nostalgia for the untrammeled desert of his youth and concern that development will impair his private business as a wilderness guide: “His only complaint was that the U.S. government, the Utah State Highway Department, and a consortium of oil companies, mining companies, and public utilities were trying to destroy his livelihood, put him out of business and obstruct the view.” Narrow, financial self-interest does not make a strong foundation to any activist movement.

The final member of the Gang, 28-year-old “teenybopper intellectual” Bonnie Abbzug, serves mainly as a figure of lust for the other three members.

The plot is a comedy of pranks, screwball chases through deserts and canyons, and shootouts—more Count of Monte Cristo than Sand County Almanac. Our eco-raiders lament the vanishing wilderness, but tend to avoid examining whether their methods might effectively save it. At one point Bonnie and Doc Sarvis drive by the site of one of their greatest successes: They have blown up a bridge as a coal train was passing, sending bridge, tons of coal, 80 train cars, and the power line tumbling into a ravine. A park ranger informs them that the power plant will be shut down for a few weeks, after which it will come back online, presumably with a better security fence. “A few weeks?” muses Bonnie. “Only a few weeks…”

Effectiveness is not what our four idealists are after, we come to realize. They are more interested in making grand displays, thrill-seeking, and—in George Hayduke’s case—the sheer exertion of violence. There are other inconsistencies. Although they extol the virtues of pristine wilderness, they rarely think twice about polluting it with their spent beer cans. They act in the name of the Native Americans whose land was seized and profaned by Western corporations, but also mock Indians as “aborigines” and “Stone Age savages riding around in pickup trucks, eating Rainbo Bread and Hostess Twinkies.” They curse industry, singing the ballad of Ned Ludd, but view with reverence the tractors and bulldozers they encounter, admiring their power and grace. This viewpoint is shared by Abbey, who describes the machines in loving detail: “…a beautiful new 27-ton tandem-drummed yellow Hyster C-450A, Caterpillar 330 HP diesel engine, sheepsfoot rollers, manufacturer’s suggested retail price only $29,500 FOB Saginaw, Michigan. One of the best. A dreamboat.” This is not the language of a Luddite. It’s the language of Industrial PowerSource Magazine.

Edward Abbey, perhaps in acknowledgment of this ambivalent view, even inserts himself in a cameo—as Edwin P. Abbott, Jr., a park ranger at Navajo Bridges National Monument who serves as a nemesis to the Monkey Wrenchers. That the characters, and Abbey himself, are aware of the limitations and contradictions inherent in monkey wrenching is not a weakness of the novel; it’s a strength. It gives a surface tension to our heroes’ madcap adventures. But the movement spawned by the novel was never able to reconcile those contradictions. In 1990, shortly after Abbey’s death, Earth First! splintered when its more militant members departed to found the Earth Liberation Front, spurning nonviolent forms of protests and devoting themselves to destructive acts of sabotage. Today Earth First! persists in various manifestations, though it has been eclipsed by Greenpeace in effectiveness and notoriety, while the bulldozers have continued their inexorable advance, now venturing into the Arctic, in the form of icebreakers.

George Hayduke’s “counter-industrial revolution” has failed to slow “the advance of Technocracy, the growth of Growth, the spread of the ideology of the cancer cell.” There is little public support for the hope that direct sabotage will provide the solution. But even Edward Abbey understood that.

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Other notable novels published in 1975:Tuck Everlasting by Natalie BabbittHumboldts Gift by Saul BellowRagtime by E.L. DoctorowJR by William GaddisSalems Lot by Stephen KingLooking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith RossnerDisturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

Pulitzer Prize:The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

National Book Award:Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

Bestselling novel of the year:Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last centuryor, to be precise, from 1900 to 2020. In each column Ill write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awardedthough awards do have a way of fixing an ages conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I wont pick any stinkers. Nathaniel Rich

Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon 1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson 1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis 1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell 1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin 1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux 1992—Clockers by Richard Price 2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London 1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather 1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton 1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West 1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles 1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs 1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy 1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman 1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright 1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle 2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus 1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James 1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington 1924—So Big by Edna Ferber 1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara 1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith 1954—The Bad Seed by William March 1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton1915—Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman1925—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos1935—Pylon by William Faulkner1945—If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes1955—Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov1965—The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick