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Common Misconceptions and Entangled Histories: a Review of Jonathan K London's Academic Revisionism of Earth First! - IWW Local #1

By x344543 - August 29, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In my efforts to uncover as much potentially useful information as I can for the IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus's website, the results of which generally wind up in our Green Unionism library, I occasionally come across an unexpected nugget of gold. Other times, it turns out to be iron pyrite (Fool's Gold). Such was the case with Jonathan K London's muddled academically oriented article, "Common Roots and Entangled Limbs: Earth First! and the Growth of Post-Wilderness on California's North Coast", published in Antipode 30:2 in 1988.

The article begins auspiciously describing the pioneering "green syndicalism" of Earth First! - IWW Local #1, as led by Judi Bari, Darryl Cherney, Greg King, et. al. London observes that Local #1 (which he describes mainly as "North Coast Earth First!"--that the IWW's role in that history is frequently omitted is not the fault of London):

"offer(ed) the promise of a truly radical movement, by which I mean one that truly confront(ed) capital’s interlinked degradation of both natural and human communities. This article examines the efforts by the North Coast Earth First! to inscribe a new community of activists and timber workers joined in the struggle to contest corporate claims on the redwood forest."

These conclusions match my own direct experiences, having worked alongside Bari, Cherney, and others between 1995-98 and having helped usher in what ultimately became the "Blue-Green Alliance" (that this effort was co-opted by reformist elements was sadly beyond our control).

Having established this, London unfortunately proceeds to the very dubious conclusion that Local 1 ultimately alienated the timber workers with whom they achieved common ground by, "by redefining the redwood forest as the exclusive property of the activists themselves."

A careful examination of London's presentation of the information in which he attempts (vainly) to make his case reveals that he offers no substantive proof to make such a conclusion, and what historical accounts he does reference are carelessly cited out of historical continuity and context. It betrays a lack of deep understanding of the actual issues, and instead suggests a very shallow--perhaps even sectarian--examination of what really happened in the so called "Timber Wars".

I suppose I tend to get my dander up about these things, because there's likely few people living today--outside of those who experienced these events directly--who knows more about the subject than me, and I guarantee almost none have dove into this history as deeply as I. Jonathan London, whether his intent was genuine or not, certainly hasn't, and that's fairly easy to prove.

For starters, though he does mention the IWW, he makes the common mistake of misidentifying the full name of the organization as the "International Workers of the World" (groan!). We Wobblies must never get tired of pointing out that the "I" stands for Industrial and that "international" and "World" are redundant. Were this the lone error, I suppose I could have let it pass, but this is but a hint of what comes next.

Much of the first half of London's essay is quite decent. He offers a very positive account of Earth First! - IWW Local #1's attempts to find synthesis between radical environmentalism and class struggle, something Judi Bari did effortlessly. This is, as I said, a promising beginning, since much of the literature about Earth First! tends to greatly downplay the class struggle angle, a strong critique of my own for more than a decade.

However, having established that, London then proceeds to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and argues that North Coast Earth First! jettisoned biocentrism and anthropomorphized nature! He correctly notes that North Coast Earth First! went beyond biocentric deep ecology, recognizing that humans were part of nature, not a species set apart from it (either in a positive way as envisioned by classical liberalism, or negatively, as the mirror image philosophy of misanthropy would suggest), but as a corollary of that, London suggests that Local #1 anthropomorphized non-human nature, by identifying trees as almost human-like beings and showing up to hearings and demonstrations dressed as flora and fauna.

This is quite the reverse of what Judi Bari and other North Coast Earth First!ers intended or did. If anything, their aim was to demonstrate that human beings were one species among many. Unlike the Malthusian "old guard" of Earth First!, represented most strongly by Dave Foreman, Ed Abbey, and Chris Manes, however, which tended to view all of humanity as a scourge that was wiping out nature, Bari and her comrades correctly identified the capitalist class as the scourge, but transcended classical leftism by pointing out that the "99%" were but a fraction of the 99.999999...% which represented all of nature, including the human working class which was imperiled by capitalism. Certainly that is the conclusion one should draw upon reading Judi Bari's seminal manifesto, Revolutionary Ecology (a work which London neglected to reference).London then makes an incredibly tenuous argument, in which he states:

"This can be seen specifically in the metaphoric reference of second- and third-growth redwoods as 'baby trees.' On the one hand, this is an ironic inversion given the typical environmental representation of the redwoods as 'ancient,' next to whom humans are the evolutionary new kid on the block and to whom humans must show respect befitting the trees’ elder status. Here the relationship is reversed and the appeal to save the redwoods is based on respect, not of patriarchal elders, but of maternal horror at the killing of innocent and helpless babies.

"The implication is that such an act locates the perpetrator outside the pale of civilization, thus requiring unified opposition. By equating their actions as opposing infanticide, Earth First! cast themselves as the defenders of civilization against the Huns of industry, thus turning the nature/culture dichotomy of the modern wilderness movement on its head. ... The symbolism of baby trees also critiques the industrial timber firms’ post-old-growth practice of using small-diameter trees to create non-traditional products such as oriented strand board. This policy of “logging to infinity” strips every sapling and stump and reduces the forest to bare soil.

"By focusing on 'baby trees,' the North Coast Earth First! expanded their sites of protest from the vestigial old-growth groves (such as the Headwaters Forest) to encompass the real battlegrounds of industrial forestry and thus from the wilderness to the civilizing edge of the forest. In addition to more accurately reflecting the ecological reality of the North Coast, this post-wilderness focus allowed for greater solidarity with timber workers who also tend to regret the loss of high-skill/high-wage logging and labor-intensive milling jobs associated with the passing of the old-growth forests. In contrast, an industry based on mopping up “baby trees” provides workers with little job satisfaction, labor demand, or financial compensation. By wiping out the new generation of trees, such forestry practices represent a running down of the area’s natural capital, thus impoverishing the resource base for the next human generation. In this way, Earth First! attempted to frame firms such as Louisiana–Pacific as “anti-family” in a region that prides itself on its strong 'family values.'...

"While these rhetorical strategies may have been intended to split the timber workers from their corporate bosses, they more frequently simply angered the workers, who felt insulted and demeaned by the environmentalists. Confronting workers with the reality of their exploitation by the timber firms without providing a realistic alternative may have also led to their shame and anger being displaced onto the environmentalists themselves. ...The baby-tree image was...viewed with scorn by workers as just another version of environmentalist’s sentimentalization of nature as a petting zoo of fuzzy seals and pandas, not as a working country."

This analysis falls about as far from the mark as one could get. If London had bothered to conduct careful research, he would have discovered this very important quote from Judi Bari herself, which reveals the actual origin of the "infanticide" meme:

"But the most urgent complaint I heard from the Mendocino County loggers I talked to was the cutting of baby trees. Before the 60s, they didn't even take the second growth, they considered it junk. Now L-P's limit for a sawlog is 6 inches by 8 feet. out of this they claim they can get two 2x4s, one 1x2, and chips. Things have gotten so bad that last year in Comptche some of the timber fallers actually walked out on a cut because the trees were too small for them to make any money at their piece-work rate.

"R&J is one of the prime offenders at cutting baby trees. 'There was one cut on the Garcia last year where they needed 40-50 more years for the trees to grow. They were cutting trees 15 inches at the stump," said one source. Another told of an R&J cut in Manchester where they took 12-inch trees. A decent second growth cut will yield about 70,000 board-feet per acre. The trees in Manchester were so small that they yielded only 2,500 board-feet per acre."

In other words, the idea came from the loggers themselves and London had access to the citation, because it's featured in Judi Bari's book, Timber Wars which he references liberally.

London later references an early North Coast Earth First! tree-sit in (the now clearcut) All Species Grove, which took place in September 1987, a full year before the IWW joined the fight, and well before Judi Bari got involved in Earth First!. In doing so, he argues that the choice by Earth First! to identify activists Greg King and Jane Cope as "Tarzan and Jane" represents a clear case of "white savior" mentality (with the loggers presumably representing the "noble savages", I suppose).

London is reading far too deeply into this incident, however. Again, had he bothered to conduct a little research, and read David Harris's (mostly accurate) account, The Last Stand (which was widely available in 1998), he would have learned that the entire "Tarzan and Jane" meme was an idea of Darryl Cherney's chosen for media impact--much to the chagrin of a reluctant Greg King and had nothing to do with any heavy handedness within Earth First!.

The author saves his most substantial blunder for the end, however, in completely jumbling the very complex string of events that led to the renunciation of tree spiking (on April 11, 1990) by Earth First! - IWW Local #1. He conflates the near decapitation of millworker George Alexander in LP's Cloverdale Mill in May 1987 with the currents that led to the renunciation itself, which makes it seem as though the latter was a desperate attempt to save face in response to the former, as well as some ill-timed statements (quoted out of context, naturally) by Earth First! co-founder and tree spiking advocate, Dave Foreman.

In fact, the history of these (largely separate) events is far more complex. First of all, the Cloverdale spiking was clearly not the work of Earth First!, and that was quickly determined within weeks of the spiking. Louisiana-Pacific and the Corporate Media blamed Earth First! in order to whip up hostility to the environmentalists (though they neglected to mention that George Alexander himself was actually somewhat sympathetic to Earth First!--though he opposed tree spiking--even after the incident and refused to be used as an anti-Earth First! puppet, much to the chagrin of the corporations and their front groups).

Secondly, London leaves out the series of events which drew Oregon mill worker Gene Lawhorn to Earth First! and the IWW in 1988, such as the many instances of IWW members and Earth First!ers walking a union picket line against Roseburg Forest Products when he and his fellow workers were on strike. He also neglects to mention that Bari made contact with Lawhorn in early 1990 and tried (successfully) to get him to speak at the Oregon ELAW conference in March 1990 in spite of intimidation by class collaborationist business union officials who considered a pro-Earth First! timber worker an anathema to their defense of Corporate Timber Capitalism.

Finally, he leaves out Gene Lawhorn's admonishment to Bari for Earth First! to renounce tree spiking, to which Bari responded with a promise to do just that, a promise she kept. Rather than representing a desperate "Hail Mary" pass to rescue Earth First!'s reputation among northwestern California rank and file timber workers, as London seems to be framing it, the renunciation of tree spiking by Earth First! - IWW Local #1 actually solidified it.

Clearly, Jonathan London's research on Earth First! - IWW Local #1 is flawed. What's not clear to me are his intentions. Is this just a case of poor research, or is something more at work here? I cannot be sure.

I am certain that London doesn't intend to defend Corporate Timber capitalism. Indeed, he seems quite bent on thoroughly exposing the class struggle that was taking place in the redwoods on California's North Coast. I share this one of his goals, at least. It's everything else he does which loses me and invokes my critique. Rather than commending Earth First! - IWW Local #1 for truly transcending both traditional leftism and deep ecology by finding a positive synthesis of both, London seems to want to throw deep ecology (good as well as bad) under the bus altogether. As Jeff Shantz points out in his writings on "Green Syndicalism" that will simply not do. For all of its faults, deep ecology correctly points out the failings industrial civilization. What it does not do well is properly assign the blame, choosing to instead blame "humanity" as if it were a monolithic force, rather than capitalism, and Judi Bari was one of the chief authors of this critique, a point that seems a bit lost on London.

In fact, the structure of London's arguments reminds me very closely of the International Socialist Organization's (ISO) "history of the IWW" lecture (which I have personally witnessed three times) in which they seem to praise the IWW's accomplishments, at least until 1917, but then proceed to tear it down for not aligning itself with Leninism. In doing so, the ISO focuses a great deal on the famous "Bread and Roses" strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, arguing that the IWW won the strike, but ultimately lost the campaign, because--lacking a "stable organization" (presumably a workers' party), the IWW quickly declined in Lawrence after the strikers' demands were won. The ISO never talks about Marine Transport Workers Local 8 or the Lumber Workers Industrial Union 120 (who won the eight-hour day by using "syndicalist" tactics the ISO is so quick to dismiss). The ISO's history of the IWW and their critical analysis falls quickly to pieces when the important historical facts they routinely omit are placed back in their proper context.

Similarly--though I am not suggesting that London (or Antipode for that matter) are squarely aligned with the ISO--the aforementioned author's rather similar set up and castigation of Earth First! - IWW Local 1 makes no sense when the complete story is revealed.

It's a shame really, and it could even be a fatal mistake. As Fellow Worker Utah Phillips said to Judi Bari in their initial conversation (by telephone), "the Earth isn't dying; it's being killed, and the killers (corporations) have names and addresses". The urgency is only more pronounced a quarter century later, and frankly we don't have the luxury of farting around much longer. It may already be too late, in fact.

My fellow EUC cofounders and I are convinced--and there are others, besides (Jeff Shantz, for example), who're convinced that Judi Bari was onto something far bigger than a mere "alliance" between Earth First! and IWW, environmentalist and timber worker. She actually had a very advanced, revolutionary, transformative vision that quite possibly holds the key to our survival. We owe it--not to Judi, though she deserves it, certainly--to ourselves and our planet to get it right. Jonathan K London doesn't. Shame on him.

London's original article can be found here.

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