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Earth First! vs. the Rumor Mongers

By Lobo x99 (Franklin Rosemont) - The Industrial Worker, September 1988

The May (1988) issue of the Industrial Worker featuring Radical Environmentalism and especially the most radical environmentalists of all, the Earth First! movement, has provoked more enthusiastic discussion and action-and more controversy-than any issue of the paper in many a long year. Even before it went to press, word got around the Union regarding its content, and bulk orders started poring in from branches, delegates, and individual members to such an extent that we had to print 10,000 copies-not bad for a paper which, six months earlier, had a monthly press-run of only 3,000.

Fellow Worker Bruce, "Utah" Phillips, one of the greatest living Wobbly bards, recently called Earth First! "the IWW of the environmental movement." Since everyone knows that (the) IWW historically, signifies the most radical , most active, most creative, most daring, most effective, as well as sassiest, gutsyist, funniest, toughest and all-around best-in-its-class, this is a good description of Earth First!'s position in the environmental spectrum. Emphasizing that the roots of today's global ecological crisis lie in the inherently ecocidal patriarchal-industrial-capitalist system (and recognizing that USSR-style "state socialism" is just more of the same crap under another name), EF!ers have also perceived that you can't change this system by playing according to its repressive rules, and that militant direct action, Wobbly-style, is the most effective instrument of radical social transformation.

In the May Industrial Worker Wobblies and Earth First!ers-including several who are Wobblies and Earth First!ers-explored some of their many philosophical and practical points in common. Our specific aim was to promote a greater understanding of Earth First! among IWW members and sympathizers, and to introduce Earth First!ers to the IWW heritage and program. Our broader hope was to effect a greater degree of common action and mutual aid between the two movements in their struggle to subvert the dominant paradigm" and to protect the Earth from its profit-hungry corporate destroyers.

Once the May issue hit the stands our wildest hopes regarding its impact were quickly exceeded. It became clear at once that young rebel workers are far more interested in radical environmentalism than even we had realized. Moreover, from all over the continent reports have been coming in showing that Wobblies and Earth First!ers are eager not only to learn from each other but also to take action together effect our common goals. And last but not least, more new memberships, new subscriptions, new bulk orders, renewals of lapsed subs and contributions to the Industrial Worker sustaining fund have come into IWW headquarters since May than in any comparable period in anyone's memory.

Yes, fellow workers, the IWW is growing today as it has not grown in years, and there is no getting around the fact that one of the reasons it is growing is because of our fortuitous encounter-now increasingly taking on the character of an active, ongoing combat alliance-with the international Earth First! movement.

On page two of this Industrial Worker you will find a small sampling of correspondence-pro and con-generated by the May issue. It is notable that, of the scored of letters and phone calls that have come our way in this regard, almost all have been positive, urging that the IWW's radical environmentalist dimensions is a crucial part of our heritage that we must actively renew and develop today.

A couple of these letters mention various weird and slanderous rumors that have been circulating about Earth First!, primarily in Reaganite publications, but also in some obscure organs of the sectarian "left". The editors of the Industrial Worker had heard these mostly baseless allegations before and, knowing that they have been ably refuted, we were surprised to see them surface again. It was like hearing someone tell us that during World War I the IWW was receiving funds from Kaiser Wilhelm.

However, because the Far Right (and sectarian Left) anti-EF! propaganda offensive has been given such prominence in the bourgeois media in recent months, and evidently has even affected a few folks in the radical workers' movement, it seems worthwhile to take a close look at these accusations.

First of all it should be made clear that Earth First! is not an organization but a movement.

It does not have members or officers or a Constitution or dues. Earth First! was started by activists who were unanimous on only one thing: the urgency of nonviolently defending wildlife, wilderness, and our whole natural environment against the ruinous ravages of industrial profiteers. On other matters they allowed themselves a wide latitude of opinion, and to this day philosophical and political diversity is as much a hallmark of Earth First! as it is of the IWW. A recent Earth First! tabloid notes that Earth First!ers range "from animal rights vegetarians to wilderness hunting guides, from monkeywrenchers to careful followers of Ghandi, from rowdy backwoods buckaroos to thoughtful philosophers, from bitter misanthropes to true humanitarians."

Earth First!'s fidelity to the motto, "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!," has had important consequences. Their free-spirited, imaginative and humorous direct actions have inevitably and constantly brought them into direct conflict with the bureaucratic, anti-imaginative and absolutely humorless capitalist press. For their bold efforts to save redwood forests and grizzly bear(s) from the money-hungry morons in charge of civilization, countless Earth First!ers have been rewarded with involuntary sojourns in various American jails, and not long ago the FBI announced that it was keeping close tabs on this latest menace to the bourgeoisie's "national security."

Earth First!'s open-ended, non-hierarchical, anarchistic, dis-organizational form of non-organization undoubtedly has its strengths, but it also has its weaknesses. Structured political organizations usually have a hierarchical leadership, a carefully spelled-out platform, a rigorously controlled official organ aimed at the public to promote this platform, and some sort of internal bulletin in which card-carrying, dues-paying members can air new proposals and disagreements. Earth First!, however, makes no distinction between the internal and public lives. The journal Earth First! is probably the most wide-open paper of contemporary American radicalism. It regularly features an astonishing variety of articles representing an astonishing number of points of view. No paper that any of us has ever seen, for instance, has published as much criticism of itself as the Earth First! Journal. Over the years the columns of the Industrial Worker have included down-to-earth self criticism than any paper in the history of the North American labor movement, but we have to admit that Earth First! has us beat by a mile on this score. The Earth First! Journal is filled with lively ongoing debates on theory, strategy, and tactics; wildly different approaches to every major topic; visionary proposals by backpacking poets and scholarly mountain-folk; and not a few outrageously madcap harangues by the lovable and sometimes not-so-lovable oddballs and cranks that cluster around every live radical group. In many ways Earth First! resembles the Industrial Worker as it was back in the days when our main contributors were footloose hobos on the road.

There is no better way to learn about Earth First! than to read the Earth First! Journal But don't make the mistake of thinking that everything you read in it is "official EF! policy"! As is clearly and prominently stated in 10-point type in each and every issue, the Earth First! Journal is not and has never pretended to be any more than "an independently owned newspaper within the broad Earth First! movement." If that isn't plain enough, it is further stated in every issue that the paper

is not the "official newsletter" of the Earth First! movement .Earth First! Journal is a forum for the no compromise environmental movement. Responsibility rests with the individual authors and correspondents. The contents do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of this newspaper, the Earth First! movement, local Earth First! groups, or individual Earth First!ers.

Every one of the attacks on the Earth First! movement that we have seen has utterly ignored this important disclaimer.

Perhaps, if the editors of the Earth First! Journal would stop trying so hard to represent as fully as possible the incredible diversity of a far-flung and decentralized movement; perhaps if they hacked away at all the copy that came in to make it fit a rigidly conceived "correct line"; perhaps if they weighed each and every word with the hyperscrupulous finesse of those whose sole talent is hindsight - perhaps, then, EF! would not be the dynamic, exciting, and growing movement that it is. And isn't it obvious that radical environmentalism needs an untamed open forum such as the Earth First! Journal, in which analysts of all ages and backgrounds and levels of experience can develop their ideas freely without having to worry about anyone hitting them over the head with an ideological hammer?

Of course, one of the troubles with doing your thinking out loud in public--as many contributors to the Earth First! Journal like to do--is that other people are watching and listening, and can hardly help noticing when you put your foot in your mouth. The very openness of the Earth First! Journal makes it easy prey for armchair critics. Among the watchers and listeners there will be some who, out of ignorance, jealousy, malice, or a combination of all three, will use this or that individual's occasional careless remarks to try to discredit the entire movement. And that, it seems to us, is exactly what the anti-Earth First! propaganda boils down to. Seizing on a sentence or two from one or another obscure text and wrenching it out of context so as to distort the author's meaning beyond recognition, enemies of radical environmentalism have then brazenly pretended that such hideously distorted fragments represent the "official policy" of the broad Earth First! movement.

Let us now consider, briefly, one by one, the ludicrous "charges" made against Earth First! by various envious inactivists.

(1) The charge that Earth First! is "anti-worker" is a particularly laughable one, not only because the movement is largely made up of workingclass folks, but also because Earth First!ers have been active in so many labor-related efforts-most notably the ongoing boycott of the union busting Coors beer. Earth First! has also published important material relating radical environmentalism to union and workplace struggles. The "anti-worker" charge needs no further refutation, for the interview with Roger Featherstone, the "Open Letter" by Randall restless and other material in the May Industrial Worker leave no doubt that Earth First! and the movement for workingclass emancipation are not only compatible but close and complementary.

(2) The labor-hating and scab-produced Chicago Tribune has published several articles asserting that Earth First!'s monkeywrenching tactics--particularly tree-spiking--somehow "injures workers." But no one, at the Tribune or elsewhere, can name a single worker who has been injured by Earth First!'s use of this old tactic (which, by the way, they learned from the IWW). Last year hundreds of capitalist newspapers picked up a scare-story, from a West Coast paper, about a sawmill-worker supposedly injured by a spiked tree, and of course echoed the sawmill-owners in placing the blame on Earth First! What these newspapers did not report, typically enough, was that the paper that originated the story published a full retraction and apology, acknowledging that nothing in the case related it to Earth First! In fact, as Fellow Worker Barb Hansen pointed out in the [February] Industrial Worker, the sole blame for the sawmill accident lay with the sawmill bosses. Earth First! monkeywrenching etiquette requires that tree-spikers indicated clearly - usually by means of an unmistakable spray-painted message - that a particular forest or section thereof has been spiked. Moreover, further notification (generally by phone) is given to the logging firms, the sawmills, and the workers involved! The whole point of tree-spiking, of course, is not to hurt anybody but to save trees!

(3) Earth First! is a multiracial movement, and the active participants of many Earth First! activists in Third World struggles - in Africa, India, Australia, the Soloman Islands, South and Central America, etc.--as well as the numerous articles in the Earth First! Journal on these struggles, and on the ways of life of the Earth's indigenous peoples, show Earth First!'s explicitly and unequivocally anti-racist character. Yet there are those whose perception of reality is so defective that they have to relay on one single offhand remark by one single Earth First!er --former Earth First! Journal editor Dave Forman, in an interview published some two years ago in Australia!

The way the anti-Earth First!ers tell it, Foreman came out and "advocated" famine in Africa, which sounds monstrous and is, in fact, untrue. The context of the interview makes it clear what he meant: that the so-called "famine relief" programs were so shabbily conducted and such dismal failures, that the "relief" was so inadequate and the condition of the people so unhealthy and hopeless even before the meager provisions arrived, that starvation was at best only postponed a few weeks, while the ecological origins of the problem remained untouched. Foreman's wording may not have been the best, but that doesn't suffice to find him guilty of racism.

(4) No less unfounded is the weird charge of "nationalism" that sometimes crops up. This one has its origins in Edward Abbey'' peculiar views on Mexican Immigration, as expressed in letters to the Bloomsbury Review and elsewhere. Arguing that immigrants are driven to the US by despair, only to be super exploited here, Abbey has urged that we turn them back at the border after furnishing each one with a rifle and several rounds of ammunition, so that they can make the Revolution in their homeland (Abbey is fond of the battle-cry, "Viva Zapata!"). Whatever one thinks of this odd notion, it cannot simply be written off as "nationalism," but more important here is the fact that Abbey's notions cannot be taken as Earth First! policy. As it happens, nearly all the Earth First!ers we know - several score of them - disagree with him on this matter, on the grounds that radical ecology is incompatible with the repressive political idea of national boundaries.

One of America's greatest living novelists and a trenchant essayist as well, Abbey, who identifies strongly with the anarchist tradition and has avowed his sympathy for the IWW, has been a major inspiration for the Earth First! movement. His fine 1976 novel, The Monkeywrench Gang, is an unexcelled portrayal of Earth First!'s philosophy and way of life.

But he has never set himself up as any sort of Great Leader, and Earth First!ers, who have little use for "leadership" in any case, have never regarded him as such. (When the arresting officers arrive and ask Earth First!ers "Who's your leader?" they usually reply, IWW style, "We're all leaders!")

(5) Undoubtedly the single most preposterous charge that has been made against Earth First! is that it "supports" AIDS. Anyone who believes such a thing is obviously ready to believe anything: that Ronald Reagan is a dues-paying Communist; that hippies are plotting to dump LSD in our water-supply; that Elvis is still alive and kicking in Atlantis. The rumor can be traced back to a very short tongue-in-cheek bit of obvious black humor, written by an Earth First! mother of two and published on page 32 of the May 1987 Earth First! Journal, illustrated with a cartoon of a mastodon crushing a Volkswagen and captioned: "Bring back the Ice-Age!" Attempting to view AIDS from a non-anthropocentric ecological perspective-that is, in terms of its effect on the planet as a whole-the author urged that "if radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring the human population back to ecological sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS." Yes, this tiny text was in horribly bad taste, but it's mild stuff compared to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. And, since one of the main aims of the Earth First! Journal is to provoke, to disturb, to foment rage, to wake people up, and start (sic) them dreaming and thinking.

"Miss Ann Thropy's" little jeremiad would seem to have done its work well. Beneath the wry sarcasm the text raises serious questions: What does it mean when a new disease emerges in society? And what is the relation between human disease and the natural world?

A later, related text in the Earth First! Journal - one that most Wobblies would much prefer - suggests that what the world really needs is a disease that would afflict only the US Senate and executives of the multinational corporations.

(6) Finally, Earth First! is often accused of being "Malthusian." The basis of this charge is that Earth First!ers-unlike the Moral Majority, the Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church - are genuinely concerned about the ecological devastation brought about by human over-population in the capitalist epoch. But Earth First!'s concern has nothing in common with the hypocritical, puritanical, and reactionary politics of that pious, plagiaristic, and anti-ecological fraud, Reverend Thomas Malthus. Earth First!'s concern, in fact, is focused on problems that Malthus couldn't have cared less about.

In the 1980s because of human overpopulation, countless species of animals and plants became extinct every day; rainforests and wilderness areas generally, are being "developed" by multinational exploiters into uninhabitable industrial wastelands. These are the concerns of Earth First!, and if such concerns make them "Malthusians," then the Ayatollah Khomeini is a Wobbly.

None of this is meant to suggest that the Earth First! movement is free of very real problems. On the contrary, like every vital and revolutionary movement, it lives from crises to crises. How could it be otherwise, considering the frightful power and immensity of the forces arrayed against it?

The future of Earth First! is an open question. In the long run, of course, the answer depends on the development of a revolutionary workingclass movement, and its ability to triumph over the death-oriented world capitalist system. From that perspective, one of our own major tasks in the immediate future must be to spread the word of radical environmentalism throughout the broader labor movement, and among working men and women everywhere.

Meanwhile, let's see to it that the rumor mongers don't have their way. Before you repeat a potentially harmful rumor, try to track it down to its source. Before you attack a movement, try to learn the truth about it. After all, truth itself is revolutionary. It's one of the things the bosses hate most.

Earth First!ers have learned a lot from the IWW, and Wobblies have been learning a lot from Earth First!, too. making this planet livable again is not so simple a task, and no one can pretend to have all the answers. There's certainly plenty for all of us to do, each in our own way.

An injury to one is an injury to all! Think globally, act locally! Solidarity forever!

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