Monday, October 15, 2007

Book Review: "Monkey Wrench Gang"

Book Review –
The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, 1975

This classic is the first fictional manifesto of the radical environmental movement. Abbey helped found Earth First! and was a member thereafter. He came from a poor background, became a partially college-educated anarchist, then took to fiction. The forward indicates that everything in the book happened at one time ... in probably the same way Mark Twain means it.

This is the story of four radicals – a “jack” Mormon river rafter, Seldom Seen Smith; a Jewish hippie girl from new York, Bonnie Abzug; an overweight surgeon, Dr. Sarvis, and an ex-Viet Vet, George Hayduke (Doonesbury anyone…) who, while taking a raft trip down the Colorado, decide to defend the Arizona-Utah desert together. The desert, under assault from strip mining, road building, industrial tourism, real estate developers, energy exploiters and politicians, needs someone to stand up for it. Their dream is to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam, but first they start with ‘smaller targets’ – road building equipment in the Utah canyonlands; strip-mining trains and bridges on Black Mesa; forest-destroying chain tractors north of the Grand Canyon, and bridges over the smaller canyons in Utah above Glen Canyon.

The author, Edward Abbey, wrote some 14 books, and also cut down ugly billboards along highways, sabotaged bulldozers creating useless roads and cut barbed wire fencing that trapped wild animals, while burning tires and one mansion. Some of these events are in the book. He worked as a forest ranger all over the northern Arizona and southern Utah area – Arches national park, Organ Pipe and Petrified Forest national monuments and the northern rim of Grand Canyon national park. He spent an immense amount of time alone, out on the desert, in hikes or staying in one place in a sleeping bag, which also might have helped his writing. While never reading Muir, and making gentle fun of Thoreau, he is more like a rural Ned Ludd, the famous slinger of ‘sabots’.

Abbey is an excellent writer. He is poetic, and uses sentences in odd ways. The book has an edge of ‘comedy’, as the quartet face the numerous dangers they are taking up with a little too much nonchalance. Almost like the “Fabulous Four” facing down the hyper-American evil ones destroying their desert. When eventually caught, after numerous hair-raising and hysterical chases, they get off with a wrist slap and a wink. Hayduke eventually gets ‘killed’ – but of course he doesn’t. Nowadays, the present environmental activist trying to destroy construction equipment would be arrested by the Department of Homeland Security, treated like Al Queda, and put in jail for most of their lives. Recent sentences for some California activists who burned up environmentally-destructive Hummers on a new car lot was in the dozens of years. So we know what this society wants now – screw nature, jail anyone who defends it, and throw away the key. Property destruction in the name of environmental protection is terrorism! This has changed since Abbey wrote. If anything, the ‘bastards’ have only gotten worse, as Hayduke puts it.

The focus of many of Abbey’s books is the Glen Canyon dam, as the epitome of human destruction in the desert. Indian ruins, towns and petroglyphs, beautiful canyons, rare plants and trees, animal and fish habitats were destroyed when it was built, to create a fake boat playground for water skiers and fisherman. This of course starved the downstream areas for water. Water and electricity were then sent to unsustainable cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. If you’ll remember, Earth First’ initial protest was to unveil a giant plastic sheet with a ‘crack’ on it down the Glen Canyon dam, symbolizing what they would like to do with that structure. Now some smaller dams all over the country are being demobilized and destroyed, as the damage they create is higher than the benefits they produce. This might come one day to Glen Canyon too.

The role of environmentalism in U.S. politics since 1970 has grown. During that year, the first Earth Day was declared, and later governments under Nixon and Carter started to pay attention to environmental issues like species protection and water/air quality. This was all partly spurred by the oil boycott of 1973. Since then there has been a counter-attack on the environment, culminating in the criminal Bush administration. Albert Gore, who you’ll remember was the vice-president under the neo-liberal Bill Clinton, had few environmental accomplishments to remember from his 8 years in POWER. Now, as an environmental activist, he is trying to save capitalism (and imperialism) from itself.

Environmentalism should be part of a modernized ‘transitional’ program, but in and of itself, it cannot overthrow capitalism. Marxists point out that profits naturally conflict with the needs of the environment, and a profit-making society cannot really pay attention to the biosphere. An excellent book on this is “Marx’s Ecology” by John Bellamy Foster, which shows Marx and Engels equating the ravaging of the working class and the ravaging of nature. There is certainly money to be made in environmentally-friendly products and technologies, which is the financial sector Gore is working for. But to configure the whole U.S. society into a carbon-neutral and especially non-growth one is impossible for capitalism to accomplish. No more than it can become a true democracy.

Essentially, environmentalism means a slowing, and even a reversal of harmful growth in the capitalist heartlands. And ‘growth’ is the heart of capitalism and corporations. To be fully implemented it will mean putting ‘society’ ahead of the individual. It will require the government to be in control of production. It will require the community to share water and energy and food. It will essentially restore a cooperative model of life and sustainability from an unbalanced and exploitative one. And this Al Gore is not prepared to do.

Edward Abbey would be proud if this happened. He was an inspiration to greens who oppose the complacency and horse trading of the ‘big’ Green organizations. At the fictional trial of three of the “monkey wrench gang” at the end of the book, Abbey noted that the defense managed to get two secret “Sierra Club” members on the jury. The defense was hoping for an acquittal vote from them. Later, they found out both voted full felony convictions for the three environmental ‘terrorists.’ We need a new mass environmental movement that they cannot put in jail.

And I got it at MayDay Books –

Red Frog – 10/15/2007


Renegade Eye said...

The characters seem scary, actually reactionary. Wrong cause and wrong tactics.

Jack Burns said...

Thanks for this post on Abbey. He's been my favorite for a long, long, time.
Today, perhaps more than ever, it's important for a new generation of readers to discover Cactus Ed, and for readers already familiar to once again take note of his writing, especially his essays.
I don't believe Ed really though monkey-wrenching could be an effective tool in fighting the machine. It was more of a therapeutic device to help us cope and let off some steam, perhaps.
The activists in Vail, those arrested and tried in Oregon, I believe, were not monkeywrenching. Monkeywrenching should never harm life, and by using arson as a tool, they broke the code. And not only that, their actions proved that criminal direct action (such as arson) are not effective tools. The Vail lodge was rebuilt, with local timber, and rebuilt bigger than originally planned. Just to say "up your's."
The more important aspect of Ed's message are, as you've noted, the result of capitalistic growth on nature, and the value of wilderness, particularly the interdigitation of wilderness and freedom. Human and non-human.
Btw, you seem to be calling for national socialism at the end of your post. I'd take issue with that, as would many other leftists. I don't really see that socialism offers any solution for environmental problems. It may help humans and solve some class problems, but it simply changes the ownership structure. Socialism says nothing whatsoever about human societies living within biological and geophysical limits. Personally, I favor a bioregional approach, with a mixture of socialism and small scale capitalism, similar to what Abbey espoused. The simple capitalism of the small shop keeper, a baker, bookseller,craftsman, independent grocer, along with cooperatives for food, energy and water. Not too far from your suggestion. Just more of a mixture with all economic activity being bound by the biological reality of community.
Thanks again for the post.

Red Frog said...

I didn't find them scary, but I found them somewhat unrealistic. That is the 'cartoon' part. If you were to pull off something like this for awhile, you would have to be very disciplined. These guys are more about drinking beer and smoking weed while careening around the country with explosives... Yeah, right. Fun and movielike. In the real world, they'd be scared shitless...which is what they sometimes are in the book.

I actually have never read anything by Abbey before, and will be reading more, maybe Desert Solitaire. Abbey actually did act on some of his ideas using sabotage, so I don't think this is just a 'feeling' kind of thing, though I know for most people it is.

National socialism is another name for 'fascism' so I'd watch my terminology, unless that is what you mean! I'm not against small business. But an economy driven by large capitalist enterprises cannot have 'no growth' or 'little growth' policies. It is geared towards 'full growth', uncontrolled growth, etc. and the maximizing of short term profit. Socialism on the other hand does not demand 'growth,' only the maintenance of decent living conditions for people and what sustains people. It is far more compatible with a sustainable economy than capitalism. I should point out that Cuba, which I don't think is socialist yet, has now developed a highly organic and decentralized agriculture, as they had to drop their reliance on oil. The soil is coming back and people from Havana are returning to work on the land. This is an indication that the growth of heavy industry is not the only economic form of workers' control.