We once defined conservation. John Muir wrote of the beauty of the Wild and its “inexhaustible abundance,” not environmental justice or decoupling or de-extinction. And he wasn’t shy about blaming human civilization: “Living artificially in towns, we are sickly,” he wrote, “and never come to know ourselves.” Almost a century later, the sentiment held strong as Howard Zahniser, the primary author of The Wilderness Act, echoed Muir:
Our noblest, happiest character develops with the influence of wildness. Away from it, we degenerate into the squalor of slums or the frustration of clinical couches. With the wilderness, we are at home.
But the uncompromising vision showed its first signs of notable weakness in the mid-1900s, when environmentalism went mainstream and professionals filled the ranks of conservation organizations. Those institutions meant to preserve the wild nature still left flirted with and then baptized themselves in moderation. Luckily, a few individuals with indomitable wills set out to stop this moderate drift and bring about Muir’s wilderness revival—and with Earth First! they succeeded.
As founder Dave Foreman put it, Earth First! was an attempt “to expand the environmental spectrum” so that “the Sierra Club and other groups”—once seen as organizations for extremists—would be “perceived as moderates.” Taking cues from Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, an infamous novel about a cadre of wilderness-loving rednecks, Foreman and others in the group did not quite encourage sabotaging, say, logging equipment, but they were very open about never condemning it. “I’m not advocating illegal activity,” Abbey wrote, “unless you’re accompanied by your parents or at night.” So the most disaffected in the conservation movement found in Earth First! an outlet, and the organization became known for all manner of illegal shenanigans, all the while bringing issues like old growth logging and rainforest protection into the fore of conservation work. Later on, Foreman would publish Eco-Defense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching to give future generations of eco-defenders a head start.
The experiment worked. Moderation in the conservation movement was now tempered by extremism. But in an ironic end to the organization’s glory days, Earth First! was swarmed by anarchists, socialists, and counter-cultural types who betrayed its conservative, even reactionary, ethic for humanist progressivism—one of the primary enemies Earth First! was fighting against in the first place. The original founders left, many still doing great work for projects like the Center for Biological Diversity and The Wildlands Network, but their bitter farewell foreshadowed the ghosts now haunting conservation as a whole.
In recent years a number of new green ideologies have taken hold—sustainable development, environmental justice, ecomodernism—all promising solutions to our ecological woes in technology and industrialization, or the benefits those things bring. This new environmentalism has all but supplanted conservation in the public’s vision of ecological politics. No longer is ecology about conserving nature; instead environmentalism hopes to develop nature “the right way.” No longer is ecology about restoring nature; instead environmentalism sees Earth as a garden for humans to tend.
The most egregious of these ideologies is ecomodernism, which not only advocates full-throttle Progress with a false promise of an ecological future, it also coopts the language of conservation in the process, making things like genetically engineering extinct species synonymous with rewilding. “A good Anthropocene,” their manifesto reads, “demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”
It is time, then, for another experiment. Hunter/Gatherer exists for this reason, its purpose to provide an outlet for the most uncompromising ecoradicals in conservation. It will not and cannot look like Earth First!, suited as that phenomenon was to its own historical context; even less like Muir’s evangelism, doubly removed from the present. But it must take with it the same spirit. It must emphasize wildness, not artificial values like justice or egalitarianism; it must be unabashed about its critique of modernity and civilization more broadly; and, since the ethic of conservation has been weakened to an even greater degree than it was in the age of Earth First!, it must be equally uncompromising in its acceptance of the consequences. As David Brower put it:
The Sierra Club made the Nature Conservancy look reasonable. I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable. Then I founded Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We’re still waiting for someone else to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable.
Well, David, the wait is over.