Note from the author: Please read this piece critically and talk about it with other people. Its purpose is to generate debate. Talk about it with me if you want. Don’t talk about it with me if you want. Ridicule it if you want. But please read it and talk about it with someone. And if you ask, I will freely admit to being an accomplice in anything negative I describe.
Is the Earth First! movement dead? How many of you have thought, asked, or heard someone else ask this question in the past year? My guess is that many of us have. I know I’ve done a lot of all three. The first few times it didn’t make much of an impression–just another unanswered question in a world that seems woefully short on answers right now. But since it was such an important question, it kept coming back, each time a little more insistent in wanting an answer. Now, after many months of mulling, I have a few thoughts on the question I would like the movement to consider.
To find my current opinion among the various feelings I have toward the movement, I tried to carefully and honestly answer some basic questions about the effectiveness of EF! in serving life on Earth. In addition to the broader human and non-human communities we serve through our activism, I tried to consider how the movement serves the activists who keep it alive. Does the movement contribute as much to our lives as it takes, or are we mining people’s lives to fuel the movement?
Other questions I asked included: What would galvanize and revive the current EF! movement? What would do for EF! what EF! did for the broader environmental movement a few years ago? What degree of unity can we achieve within a group as diverse as Earth First!? Are the movement’s flaws and internal contradictions so great that we are in fact just another oppressive system masquerading as a revolutionary movement? If human endeavors are going to be tainted by the dysfunctional system that produced us, is there within the movement a sincere commitment to identify and overcome our shortcomings?
My answer to the broader question of whether EF! is dead is that it isn’t dead, it’s just sleepwalking. I think we need to wake up and believe in ourselves and our movement again! We need to remember that a life of earnest struggle for deeply held values with close friends is the most joyous and honorable life that is possible on this Earth. Sure we’ve got problems, but we also have abundant reason to love each other and the cause that we as a group represent. I think we should stop for a moment to remember that our lives here are important and should be treasured. It was that intense love of life that made EF! different to begin with. It is also the only thing I can see that is powerful enough to fuel our future activism in the face of the increasing horror we must face.
So what is it that will make us believe passionately in ourselves and EF!? I think we need to be more conscious of our history, our current situation and our plan for the future. For a revolutionary movement to achieve anything of significance in this world, it must have a sense of its past, present and future. When I lose my appreciation for what we have already done, I lose my primary source of solace and inspiration. Then I lose my interest in the present and future and become paralyzed. I obsess on today’s nightmare and the fact that in spite of our efforts we continue to lose so much that we hold so dear. But when I settle down, my memories flow back and I remember all the positive and significant things we as a movement have done.
I think Earth First! has made progress in all of these areas and that that is why we are being targeted by the state. Other movements that have to some extent provided for their supporter’s needs while simultaneously issuing a severe challenge to the dominant culture have been dealt with severely. The state cannot afford to allow revolutionary subcultures–even unstable ones such as EF!–to exist for very long. Working models of alternative cultures erode the fear the state uses to keep the populace subservient and give people a means to express their discontent. We provide at least partial escape from the prison work farm that is the modem corporate world. But we have only been partially successful at escaping from or challenging the dominant culture. Myself, I’m going to try to take pride in what we’ve done and accept the additional commitment that the future will demand. To fail to recognize any good in that which we’ve done would be disrespectful to the many necessary and courageous things EF!ers have done. To think that we can get by in the future with the level of commitment and coordination we have maintained in the past would be unrealistic and arrogant. Please, can we now continue our activism with the strength and wisdom we’ve gained through our past efforts and the humility that the future demands?
I think we are being naïve if we don’t fully realize that Earth First!, ragtag or not, is considered a serious threat by the corporate state. We’ve seen that even the modest campaigns we’ve waged have been sufficient to elicit a massive and growing response from the propaganda and security elements of the state. We may not always have faith in our movement, but the state has enough faith in it to want to see it dead. I now hear that there are congressional hearings planned for us “eco-terrorists” this Spring. All this for what can be easily argued as one of the most scrupulously non-violent revolutionary movements the Earth has seen. I thought one of our fundamental goals was minimizing the violence that is inflicted upon human and non-human life. Oh well, I guess the FBI doesn’t read our publications.
So EF! is effective enough to get the attention of the state, is it effective enough to slow or stop the vast destruction of life we are witnessing? I don’t think so. To even have a chance at influencing such a vast phenomenon EF! needs to replace with a just and resilient anarchy what is now too frequently just chaos. Who is doing what and when? What have we done in the past that we need to change? What things worked well and need to be repeated? Sometimes we ask these questions, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we implement our answers, sometimes they rot on the vine. Sometimes our meetings are focused and productive. Often they are chaotic and confusing and alienating for newcomers. We cannot afford to work this way any longer! Any even reasonably ambitious human endeavor requires some level of ongoing commitment and coordination to be successfully completed. A task as huge and complex as the societal transformation we seek will take long term commitment and a fair amount of coordination among a large number of people. Vague and constantly shifting goals and levels of commitment will limit our effectiveness, waste scant resources and strain relationships within the group. We cannot afford this! I’m not saying we need bylaws or officers, just that we need to know who is doing what and when. And when they get burned out or can’t do it anymore for whatever reason, we need to know so we can get someone else to do it. I don’t think these requests compromise the anarchistic ideals of our movement. To the contrary, I consider the creation and maintenance of a just and resilient alternative culture to be true anarchism and true radicalism.
When I consider what EF! has done for me, my circle of friends and the fight for life on Earth, I feel sincerely grateful and compelled to keep it alive and moving. I was a twenty year old biology major when I was introduced to EF! by my sister-in-law who told me I might find people I could relate to at an EF! meeting. I went to the meeting and through EF! developed friendships that I continue to treasure eight years later. In fact, all of my closest friends are people I’ve met through my involvement in EF!. If I hadn’t gone to that meeting and had the support and guidance that comes from living within a community of like minded souls, I don’t know where I would be today or what I would be doing. Earth First! gave me something I desperately needed–a home in a very hostile world. Because EF! has been there to bring people together, entire communities have been able to form and maintain themselves. That function alone is a very significant and necessary thing in today’s world.
There were enough positive aspects to the EF! of 1987 to win my allegiance, and in the past nine years I think we have made progress in transforming the movement’s philosophy and overall dynamics to something that is more just and consistent. I am not saying that I think our work is done, only that there’s a lot less about EF! that makes me wince than there used to be. This transformation has been no small feat. It has involved many gut-wrenching debates about many important issues that we’ve had to carry on at the same time we’ve been fighting the most massive and virulently destructive society this Earth has ever produced. A pretty tall order for a bunch of impoverished slacktivists.
So if everything is so great right now, why is everyone asking if the movement is dead? What are the negative aspects of EF! that make us wonder if what we are doing is of value to ourselves or others? On my short list I would put spending a large part of every day talking to people about horrifying things, having each day to try to some extent accept things about the world that I won’t ever be able to accept, and living in poverty. Another thing that is central to our movement that is extremely difficult is building and maintaining positive relationships with each other. Frequently in the course of our activism we are guilty of or the victim of disrespectful behavior. I can remember many times I have been unnecessarily and unfairly harsh in my interaction with other activists. I believe we have become so accustomed to living lives of intense intellectual combat that out of habit we treat our friends the way we treat our enemies. Rather than caring enough about our relationships to develop effective means of communication and conflict resolution, we blast away at each other with the verbal equivalent of automatic weapons. I would here and now like to extend an apology to anyone that I have pissed off and will sincerely try to forgive those who’ve pissed me off. Please, can we strive in the future to resolve differences of opinion within the group in such a way that relationships survive the process. If we can’t reform a small portion of the human race then there is truly no hope of reforming society in general. I refuse to accept that premise.
To sustain the fundamental challenge to society that Earth First! presents, I believe we must continue to develop within ourselves and our communities those qualities that the dominant culture lacks. We need to be open with and supportive of each other since relationships within the dominant culture are frequently closed and exploitative. We need to be forward thinking about our lives and the movement since the dominant culture thinks only of today. We need to strive for consistency and dependability since the dominant society only consistently delivers pain, disillusionment and insecurity. We need to be patient with each other and take care of each other since the dominant culture is crazed and uncaring. Simply stated, I think we need to lead by example.
I also think our efforts to establish meaningful relationships with other revolutionary movements depend upon our ability to create and maintain a just and consistent culture among ourselves. How can we ask other movements to consider what we stand for when we don’t always seem to know ourselves. I do think we’ve had and still somewhat have a remotely coherent and comprehensive concept of our movement’s ideals, we just seldom publish it or fail to effectively distribute what we have published. Only if we continue to define the ideals of our movement and communicate them to other movements can we form meaningful alliances. Only then can we and our allies grow into a force that will make the corporate monster blink.
So, a little faith, a sense of our past, present and future, ongoing commitment and organization, collaboration with other movements…what else do we need to focus and energize our movement for the struggle to come? I would argue that we need to develop the ability to challenge society without making individuals feel cornered. If our method of criticizing people’s inappropriate lifestyles is so rigid and harsh that we make everyone feel like our enemies, I don’t think we’ll win many converts. I try to remember how hard it was for me to achieve the independence and strength that being an activist requires. If we have compassion for those who are making an honest effort, I think we can maintain the intensity of our rhetoric without attacking people who are, like us, victims of an unjust system.
I also think we should spend more time encouraging people in general to take individual action on behalf of life on Earth. There are many people who agree with us who will never go to an Earth First! event. I know many of those people care enough to take meaningful action if they just get some encouragement.
So what if I’m wrong about the various premises I have laid out in this piece. I guess that would make Earth First!ers pitiful figures who are in denial of the fact that their movement is dead or was never such a good idea to begin with. I don’t think so. I know that many movements have had to wait decades to see their efforts bear fruit.
I know that many movements that have been persecuted by the state have taken a while to regain their former strength and spirit. And I know, as anyone who’s been an activist for even a short period knows, that activism has its highs and lows. Please, let’s do whatever we have to do to make our lives as activists more positive and productive. And let’s care enough about each other and our cause to live through and learn from the lows. I think Earth First! is the best radical, anarchistic, biocentric movement we have going. I think it has served life or Earth well and that we should cherish it, make it stronger, and keep it moving. More than ever before, I feet that we have little time and little choice, that we must make the defense of the Earth and its precious life the central concept in our lives. Many activists have been saying the ’90s were supposed to make the ’60s look like the ’50s. It’s starting to sound a little ridiculous. I think we should fight like there were no tomorrow.
(Dis)Connection Issue 4 • 1996