EJ activist Ed Abbey?


Spring semester is winding down, and the students in my course Rhetoric of the Environmental Movement are reading Edward Abbey’s 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire. After having duly investigated news reports, scientific studies, websites, and environmental impact statements, they appreciate Abbey’s lively and eccentric voice and his vivid descriptions of the landscape of Arches National Park. As we discuss Abbey’s contribution to environmental discourse in the U.S, it’s a treat for me, too, to revisit Cactus Ed each year.  I’m always confronted with fresh perspectives and layers that have eluded me in previous readings.

Like my students, I have difficulty pinning any particular genre to Desert Solitaire. It contains, in varying degrees, nature writing, Montaigne-style essay writing, scathing polemic, satire, instruction-manual-style directions, travel narrative, and confessional memoir. Where does Abbey stand on environmental preservation? I ask in class.

At first, students want to pin him as a liberal, a libertarian, a primitivist, an anarchist, a romantic, or a radical, and they can find passages that seem to support all of these contradictory labels. Likewise, passages are dug up that refute them all. He was a wily, unpredictable dude, both in his writing and his storied personal life and death, and to underscore this I sometimes share “Ed anecdotes” with the students, such as that about his secretive burial in Southern Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta wilderness.

A puzzle piece that’s eluding me this year is Abbey’s views on environmental justice. You might understandably Monkey Wrench Gangwonder why such a thing would matter in the larger scheme of things. One reason is that Abbey’s works, especially Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, have likely reached more people than almost any other written material on environmental preservation, many of them outside what might be considered a normal or target audience for such pieces. Both are accessible and somewhat hip and edgy (the latter especially). Both can also be read as parables against technology and its effects, especially pollution, the scourge of the land but also the poor and ill.

So was Abbey a kind of voice of justice? I’m not sure it’s that easy. In one remarkable passage in Desert Solitaire, Abbey opines that preservation is not only necessary for the usual reasons of ecological and spiritual health, but as “a refuge from authoritarian government.” Sounding eerily like one of my cousins who has watched Red Dawn a few too many times, Abbey lists what he sees as harbingers of impending totalitarianism: urbanization, population growth, mechanization of agriculture, military aggression, gun control, and depletion of wilderness.

If we are to preserve “freedom and innovation,” he writes, we may need wilderness areas to stage “guerilla warfare against tyranny.” Such a diatribe does certainly advocate some sort of justice of a violent and anarchist nature, but what happens when the sought-after personal liberty is achieved? Will it protect the very wilderness that nurtured it? Will it safeguard the interests of the downtrodden?

I’m sure there are plenty of Libertarian folk who will be happy to school me in this area, but I’m skeptical: our current liberties haven’t been especially fruitful in these areas. So, I remain torn on Abbey’s contribution to environmental justice, but I’m going to keep on reading him -- after all, the guy can certainly turn a phrase -- and maybe the students and I can hash something out.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.

Monkey Wrench Gang image courtesy Flickr user earthlightbooks

Beau Peyton
Beau Peyton
Apr 30, 2011 06:55 AM
How do you see "guerilla warfare" as something that necessarily suggests action that's violent or "anarchist" in nature? That's a big leap. What Tim de Christopher did is guerilla warfare. Monkeywrenching is guerilla warfare, but neither of those actions are violent since they aren't targeting or harming life, human or non-human. In fact, they're designed to protect life. It's sabotage, not terrorism.
And why do people continually assume anarchists are violent? I don't know any violent anarchists, and anyone calling themselves an anarchist that uses violence obviously hasn't read a lot of anarchist theory. In fact, Ed Abbey examined the efficacy of violence as a tool of anarchist action in his 1959 Masters thesis, "Anarchy and the Morality of Violence." Through analysis of the writing of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Sorel,Abbey concluded that there is no justification for violence in the pursuit of anarchy, and that, in fact, violence is counterproductive to the establishment of a non-coercive society.
If you read Abbey's entire body of work, several major points become very clear. One, industrial capitalist growth is destroying the environment and must be opposed. He wrote we have a moral obligation to oppose this threat, since it represents an attack on our home, on the things we need to have a full, healthy existence. Much of his writing is philosophical in that it examines man's spiritual and physical relationship to the natural world. And he's pretty clear on what he sees as the final denouement should we remain silent and not oppose the capitalist interests destroying it.
Ed was certainly an anarchist and believed that government had become so interdigitated with industrial interests that the two were nearly indistinguishable. He made a few comments about "revolution," but to the best of my knowledge, he never made a case for the armed overthrow of government or expanded at length on those comments. It's just Ed being Ed. He once wrote,"Some people write to please, to soothe, to console. Others to provoke, to challenge, to exasperate and infuriate. I've always found the second approach the more pleasing."
Environmental justice begins with opposition against the interests that are destroying the environment, and Abbey was quite clear in identifying those interests and on our obligation to oppose those interests.
Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis Subscriber
Apr 30, 2011 10:29 AM
"Environmental justice" is a human-centered misconception that all humans can be treated fairly when the state promulgates environmental laws and regulations. It is neither environmental nor just, as the non-human world always loses out under human manipulation. The state, by its very nature, is unjust, unfair and discriminatory. Therefore, environmental justice is a concept with no basis in reality.

Ed Abbey's closest approach to "environmental justice" was the sane suggestion that immigrants from the south be given a rifle and a box of ammunition and sent back home to deal with environmental injustice in their own countries, where they knew who their enemies were. This made Ed very unpopular among the liberal set, and undoubtedly must not be dwelt upon in college classes in these enlightened times. Unfortunately, the United States government ignored this simple suggestion, and the environment of the American Southwest has suffered extensively as a consequence.

When Ed wrote about preservation of the wild, he was not just referring to undeveloped lands; his reference included the wild in each of us, the basic core of every human being no matter how urbanized, homogenized and politicized. He saw it as necessary to stop unbridled economic growth, industrial development, destruction of natural habitat and other ills of civilization in order to allow all humans to fully develop in the innate natural diversity essential to human survival in a rapidly changing world, both environmental and cultural.

Ed's environmental justice is to be found in the full flowering of human beings as functioning members of the natural world, not as kings and queens atop the ant heap. His vision was of humans as wild creatures, at ease in their true home in the wilderness.

In this there is justice enough.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
May 03, 2011 02:22 PM
Abbey himself rejected the label of environmentalist, in both his words and some of his actions, such as rolling a tire off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Some of his attitudes toward minorities would indicate he'd reject the idea of himself being supportive of environmental justice, too. I take him at his word, and his actions.

Environmentalists, and more readers of HCN, would be well served to pull Ed off any pedestals on which they have placed him.