You are here

Earth First! The Underbelly Exposed

By Chris Shillock - Libertarian Labor Review (Anarcho Syndicalist Review) #6, Winter 1989

Several years ago the activist community was fired by news of a group of militant ecologists who called themselves Earth First!. Anarchists particularly felt a kinship. Earth First!’s uncompromising defense of the environment and their rejection of government stewardship of the wilderness echoed our own experience of the futility of working within the system. Their use of direct action was taken from our own history. Their full-blooded all-out enthusiasm for nature promised a robust, holistic radicalism.

Lately, as people learned more about the group, some truly disturbing facets of Earth First!’s ideology have come to light. By now it is clear that not only is Earth First! hostile to any meaningful social analysis, but it is freighted with so much nationalist and racist baggage as to make them obnoxious to any worker.

Earth First!’s philosophy, also known as Deep Ecology, is set out in a book of that name by Bill Devall and George Sessions (Peregrine Smith, Salt Lake City, 1985). It borrows from Zen Buddhism, Native American religions and from Heidegger, but is based on an immediate intuition of the “wilderness experience.” They urge us to go into the woods, to just feel. The result will be that feeling of the oneness of all creation which we have probably all known when we find ourselves alone under the stars.

Deep Ecologists go on to reason that “The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves…These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.” Deep Ecologists condemn other social and scientific views as “anthropocentric” in contrast to their “biocentric” outlook. This epithet is hurled throughout the pages of their journal, Earth First!, to clinch a point or to dismiss opponents.

So far, okay, aside from a few quibbles in logic. Earth First! has the potential to be a noble and passionate worldview. Instead their concept of “biocentric egalitarianism” turns the corner into a Malthusian blind alley shadowed with dark visions of a vengeful Earth lashing back at the species that uses her. Malthusianism has always been a pseudoscience serving the need of right wing ideology. In the Nineteenth Century, Social Darwinists used Malthus’ simplistic predictions of a dwindling food supply to justify doing nothing to alleviate the misery of the poor. Variations of this philosophy have been used in the Twentieth Century to buttress everything from eugenics to Third World starvation.

Earth First! has been inspired by the grim and callous mentality of the Malthusians. They maintain that only a drastic reduction of the human population of our planet will save the wilderness. They propose a population of five million in the United States living exclusively in a hunter-gatherer economy. While Earth First! does not support direct action to reduce human populations, they are quite happy to see disease and famine, poverty and exploitation take their toll. Dave Foreman, in an interview with Bill Devall, says about Ethiopia: “The best thing would be to let nature seek its own balance, to let people there just starve.” (Simply Living) . “Miss Ann Thropy” in her column in (the) Earth First! (Journal) hails AIDS as the perfect epidemic because it kills only people and not animals, a kind of ecologists’ equivalent of the neutron bomb…“If the AIDS epidemic didn’t exist, radical ecologists would have to invent one.” (Earth First! Journal, May 1, 1987)…

Earth First! supporters have answered their critics in two articles. The first, “Deep Ecology and its Critics” (The Nation, May 14, 1988) by Kirkpatrick Sale, is bland and philosophical. Franklin Rosemont’s “Earth First! vs. the Rumor Mongers” (Part C of this chapter) is a pointed response to specific allegations provoked by the May 1988 issue of the Industrial Worker, devoted to an uncritical exposition of Earth First!’s activities.

Sales sets out Earth First!’s philosophical and scientific foundations and argues that a critique of the dominant world view follows which is compatible with political activism. It is true that Earth First! overflows with hatred and scorn for the mining, ranching, and logging corporations which exploit the wilderness. But their hostility is closer to right wing populism than working class analysis. Dave Foreman also rails against “an ossified leftist worldview that blames everything on the corporations” (Earth First! Journal, March 20, 1987). The appropriately pseudonymous Miss Ann Thropy rejects even the concept of social justice. “Discussions of ‘social justice’ taking immigration or economic inequality as their themes serve only to cloud the population debate, due to the simple fact that, in a technological context, there is no such thing as ‘justice.’” (Earth First! Journal, Ibid.)

“She” is, in a sense, right. Nature has no concept of justice. From the point of view of the cosmos it matters not whether individual humans are living free and creative lives or fertilizing the biosphere six feet under; or for that matter, blasted into our component atoms by a thermonuclear reaction. Political action, in contrast, is based on the assumption that human lives matter. Working class analysis locates the cause of human unhappiness in the structure of society and fights to change that structure.

Franklin Rosemont’s first reaction to charges against Earth First! is to accuse his critics of “seizing a sentence or two from one or another obscure texts.” (“What corpse? All they found were a few severed limbs and besides, we buried them deep in the woods.”) He then argues that the group comprises a wide variety of personalities and ideas, pointing out that Earth First!’s masthead disclaims any role as an official organ.

On paper Earth First! is admirably decentralized. There are no membership dues and local groups enjoy considerable autonomy. The Earth First! Journal sometimes prints dissenting views. Nevertheless the Tucson junta (Foreman, Abbey, et al.) is more equal than others. The Earth First! Journal is their only publication with national distribution and a stable funding base. And occasional expressions of dissent are immediately answered. The harassment and silencing of the dissident group, Alien-Nation, at the 1987 Grand Canyon Rendezvous shows that it is possible to control a group even without an official hierarchy.

Rosemont also complains that Earth First! has been quoted out of context. He urges workers to read the Earth First! Journal and find out what the group is really like. This is excellent advice, as these quotes are just as appalling in context. The latest issue of the Earth First! Journal, for example, contains a news article about a five year old boy crushed by a two hundred pound fish and fiction about a group of ecoterrorists who strip a woman and shave off her body hairs as punishment for wearing furs.

I am sure that many fellow workers have done actions in coalitions with liberals, bourgeois labor unions, and political parties which do not share the goals of the IWW. There is no problem with fellow workers joining Earth First! to achieve certain common and short-term ends. It is also possible that Dave Foreman and his Tucson group represent a minority view within Earth First!. However, they are the central group, and the one whose views were presented in the Industrial Worker. We have no business using our central publication to spread their propaganda …Earth First!’s open structure would seem to allow them to reform them-selves. Such reform is long overdue.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.