Whither Earth First?!

Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally published by Dave Foreman in Earth First! 8(1), 20-21. It was his most notable attempt to take back control from the humanist faction of Earth First. For more on the history of the organization, see Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization by Christopher Manes. You might also want to check out our Earth First! collection in the Archive of Radical Conservation History.


A hallmark of Earth First! from its inception has been an acceptance of diversity within our movement. Just as a diverse ecosystem is more stable, many of us have argued that a diverse social movement is stronger. Nonetheless, while diversity can strengthen and stabilize our tribe, too much diversity can fracture and immobilize it. As in any action-oriented group, there needs to be basic agreement on matters of ideology, strategy, tactics, and style or any attempt to do anything degenerates into disagreement over fundamentals. For example, I don’t think anyone would argue that proponents of clearcutting old growth forests or of eliminating Grizzly Bears from Yellowstone should be accepted in Earth First!. Those issues have been decided within our tribe. We might discuss how to preserve old growth or Grizzlies but not whether we should.

After seven years, I am proud of our diverse, courageous tribe. We have accomplished much (although far more remains to be accomplished). We have made national issues out of Old Growth Forests and Tropical Rainforests, and have significantly helped to create the issues of Biodiversity and Wilderness Recovery, as well as to promote the Deep Ecology philosophy. We have effectively introduced non-violent civil disobedience into the repertoire of wild land preservation. And we have restructured the conservation spectrum. Our diversity in abilities, lifestyles, talents, personalities, and even ideas accounts for much of what we have accomplished. I am concerned, however, that with our increased visibility, with being an “in” group, with attracting many new people, Earth First! has perhaps become too diverse, that there are disagreements over matters of philosophy and style which threaten to compromise the basic tenets of Earth First! or make us impotent. There are very strong efforts both within and without Earth First! to moderate us, mellow us out, and sanitize our views. A great deal of pressure is being directed at our biocentric philosophy, with demands that we become more humanistic.

It is time, I think, to re-evaluate from where we have come, where we are now, and whither we go. What are the defining characteristics of Earth First!, what essentially makes us Earth First!?

In the following paragraphs I am going to state forcefully and clearly (at least I hope clearly) my response to the above questions. As a founder of Earth First!, as editor of this newspaper, I obviously have very definite viewpoints on these matters. But let me preface my point of view by saying that the following is not the “official” position of Earth First! (whatever that is). It is not carved in stone. I think — and I emphasize think — that what I am going to expound represents the prevailing consensus of the Earth First! tribe.

If that is the case, if the defining characteristics of Earth First! that I enunciate are indeed such, then I suggest that those who strenuously object to them find a venue for their activism elsewhere. Start your own radical environmental group. This newspaper will be happy to announce the formation of such groups and facilitate the initial communication between folks interested. If some people split off from this tribe to form their own tribe, there is no need for bad feelings. There is more than enough turf out there for a dozen militant environmental groups besides Earth First!. And the problems we jointly face are so profound that we should cooperate in a spirit of comradeship wherever we can.

If, on the other hand, I am not in the mainstream of what is now the Earth First! movement, I want to know. I can assure all of you that I’ll be happy to leave with any other “eco-brutalists” (in Murray Bookchin’s priceless term) and harbor no ill will. But I simply do not want to go to my tribe’s annual gathering and hear debates in workshops about whether there is or isn’t a problem with overpopulation, or hear Ed Abbey intemperately denounced as “racist” and “fascist.” I can tolerate and respect other viewpoints. I can cooperate on certain issues with those who hold divergent views from mine on other issues. I simply expect that same tolerance and respect.

Before I offer my ideas on the parameters that bind Earth First!, I think it useful to consider briefly the genesis of Earth First!, and our relationship to other alternative movements in modern society.

Earth First! is not a part of, nor are we, the reform environmental movement, the animal rights movement, the anarchist movement, the peace movement, the social justice movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the non-violence movement, the Rainbow Tribe, the neo-pagan movement, the Green movement, or the Left. We have varying degrees of affinity and overlap with all of these, but we are not entirely contained by any of them nor do we entirely contain any of them. We are the Earth First! movement. As such, we are not even the entire radical environmental movement or the Deep Ecology movement. There is a great deal of room to the radical side of the Sierra Club within the conservation cause, far more than Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, and Earth First! can fill. If Earth First! tries to straddle too much of the “radical environmental movement” we will fall flat on our face.

We did not emerge from the anarchist movement, nor from the Left. Earth First! came very directly out of the public lands conservation movement — out of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and The Wilderness Society. It is public lands issues and wilderness that have been central to us from our formation. People have certainly come to Earth First! from other movements, some EF!ers have primary connections to these other movements, and EF! operates with these other movements on many issues, but we must remember our source and what has been our primary thrust.

In charting the future course of the Earth First! movement, in answering the question “Whither Earth First!?,” let me elaborate on some general, yet basic, parameters which I think establish Earth First! and differentiate us from other movements with which we share some things in common. Although I have previously stated these generalities in “Around the Campfire” and at the 1987 Round River Rendezvous, it is necessary to discuss them in more detail to make my point unmistakably intelligible. This is a healthy discussion, but it is a tiring one, and a distracting one. Let’s resolve it and get on with the real work at hand.

I think the following points define “Earth First!”:

A placing of the Earth first in all decisions, even ahead of human welfare if necessary. Our movement is called “Earth First!” not “People First!.” Sometimes what appears to be in the short-term interest of human beings as a whole or a select group of human beings or of individual human beings is detrimental to the short-term or long-term health of the biosphere (and often even to the actual long-term welfare of human beings). This does not say we should preserve native diversity if we can do it in such a way that does not negatively impact on the material “standard of living” of a group of human beings. It says simply that we should preserve native diversity. Human beings must adjust to the planet; it is supreme arrogance to expect the planet and all that it contains to adjust to the petty demands of humans. In everything we do, the primary consideration should be for the long-term health and native diversity of Earth. After that, we can consider the welfare of humans. We should be kind, compassionate, and caring with other people, but Earth comes first.

A refusal to use human beings as the measure by which to value others. The individual human life is not the most important thing in the world. An individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear life (indeed, some of us would argue that an individual Grizzly Bear life is more important than an individual human life because there are far fewer Grizzly Bears). Human suffering resulting from drought and famine in Ethiopia is unfortunate, yes, but the destruction of other creatures and habitat there is even more unfortunate. This leads quickly into the next point:

An enthusiastic embracing of the philosophy of Deep Ecology or Biocentrism. This states simply and essentially that all things possess intrinsic value or inherent worth. Things have value and live for their own sake. Other beings (both animal and plant) and even so-called “inanimate” objects such as rivers or mountains are not placed there for the convenience of human beings. The whole concept of “resources” is denied by this philosophy. We are in direct opposition to the dominant philosophy of our time (which contains Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Capitalism, Marxism, Scientism, Secular Humanism, etc.) which is expressed by Gifford Pinchot’s remark that there are only two things in the world — human beings and natural resources. Ours is an ecological point of view that instead views Earth as a community and recognizes such heretical truths as that “disease” (malaria) and “pests” (mosquitoes) are not evil manifestations to be overcome and destroyed but rather are vital and necessary components of a complex and vibrant biosphere.

A realization that Wilderness is the real world. The preservation of wilderness is the fundamental issue. Wilderness does not merely mean backpacking parks or scenery. It is the natural world, the arena for evolution, the cauldron from which humans emerged, the home of the others with whom we share this planet. Wilderness is the real world; it is our cities, our computers, our airplanes… our global business civilization which is artificial and transient. The preservation of wilderness and native diversity is the most important issue. Issues affecting only humans pale into insignificance. Of course, ecology teaches us that all things are connected, and in this regard all other matters become subsets of wilderness preservation — the prevention of nuclear war, for example.

A recognition that there are far too many human beings on Earth. There are too many of us everywhere — in the United States, in Nigeria; in the cities, in the rural areas; with digging hoes, with tractors. Although there is obviously an unconscionable maldistribution of wealth and the basic necessities of life among humans, there are nevertheless too many of us already (and our numbers continue to grow astronomically). Even if inequitable distribution could be solved, 5 billion, 7 billion, 11 billion human beings converting the natural world to material goods and human food will devastate native diversity a’building for three and a half billion years.

I consider the issue of population to be an absolute litmus test for Earth First!. It is so fundamental to the preservation of wilderness, to the practice of biocentrism, that a refusal to recognize the need to lower human population over the long run clearly defines one as a humanist and places them outside the bounds of Earth First!. I feel so strongly about this point as an indicator of whether someone is anthropocentric or biocentric, about whether their loyalty is to Earth or to humankind, that I would rather see the Earth First! movement split asunder than to lallygag about it. This does not mean that we can’t criticize the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the maldistribution of resources, and the venality of multinational corporations and Third World juntas alike, but we must realize that Grizzly Bears, Tigers, Elephants, and Rainforests are not compatible with an exploding human population.

A definite questioning of and even antipathy to “progress” and “technology.” In looking at human history, we can see that we have lost more to our “rise” to civilization than we have gained. We can see that life in a hunter-gatherer society was on the whole healthier, happier, and more secure than our lives today as peasants, industrial workers, or business executives. For every material “achievement” of progress, there are a dozen losses of things of profound value and ineffable significance. We can accept the pejoratives of “Luddite” and “Neanderthal” with pride. (This does not mean that we must eschew all facets of technological civilization. We are of it, yes, we can use it; this does not mean that we can’t critique it.)

A refusal to accept rationality as the only way of thinking. There is room for great diversity within Earth First! on matters spiritual, and nowhere is tolerance for diversity more necessary. But we can all recognize that linear, rational, logical left brain thinking represents only part of our brain, our thinking process, and our consciousness. Rationality is a fine and useful tool, but it is just that — a tool, one way of analyzing matters. Equally valid, perhaps ultimately more so, is intuitive, instinctive awareness. We can become more cognizant of ultimate truths sitting quietly in the wild than by reading books. Reading books, engaging in logical discourse, compiling facts and figures are necessary and important, but they are not the only ways to comprehend the world and our lives.

A lack of desire to gain credibility or “legitimacy” with the gang of thugs running human civilization. It is basic human nature to want to be accepted by the social milieu in which you find yourself. It hurts to be dismissed by the arbiters of opinion as “nuts,” “terrorists,” “wackos,” or “extremists.” But we are not crazy; we happen to be sane humans in an insane human society in a sane natural world. We do not have “credibility” with Senator James A McClure or with Interior Secretary Donald Hodel or with MAXXAM Chairman Charles Hurwitz — but they do not have credibility with us! (We do have their attention, however.) They are madmen destroying everything pure and beautiful. Why should we have any desire to “reason” with them? We do not share the same worldview or values.

The American system is very effective at co-opting and moderating dissidents by giving them attention and then encouraging them to be “reasonable” so their ideas will be taken more seriously. Appearing on the evening news, on the front page of the newspaper, in a national magazine — all of these are methods the establishment uses to entice one to share their worldview and to enter the negotiating room to compromise. The actions of Earth First! — both the bold and the comic — have gained attention. If they are to have results, we must resist the siren’s offer of credibility, legitimacy, and a share in the decision-making. We are thwarting the system, not reforming it.

An effort to go beyond the tired, worn-out dogmas of the left, right, and middle-of-the-road. These doctrines, whether blaming Capitalism, Communism, or the Devil for all the problems in the world, merely represent internecine squabbles between different factions of Humanism. Yes, multinational corporations commit great evil (the Soviet Union is a multinational corporation, too); there is great injustice in the world; the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer — but all problems cannot be simplistically laid at the feet of evil capitalists in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Earth First!ers are not left or right; we are not even in front. Earth First! should not be in the political struggle between humanistic sects at all. We’re involved in a wholly different game.

An unwillingness to set any ethnic, class, or political group of humans on a pedestal and make them immune from questioning. It’s easy, of course, to recognize that white males from North America and northern Europe hold a disproportionate share of responsibility for the mess we’re in; that upper and middle class consumers from the First World take an excessive portion of the world’s “resources” and therefore cause greater per capita destruction than do other peoples. But it does not follow that everyone else is blameless.

The Earth First! movement, for example, has great affinity with native groups throughout the world. They are clearly in the most direct and respectful relationship with the natural world. Earth First! should be backing up such groups in the common struggle whenever we can. Most EF!ers, for example, are supportive of the Dine (Navajo) of Big Mountain against relocation, but this does not mean that we should pretend that severe overgrazing by domestic sheep does not occur on the Navajo Reservation. We may be supportive of subsistence lifestyles by natives in Alaska, but should we be silent about clearcutting old growth forest in southeast Alaska by native corporations, about the efforts of the Eskimo Doyon Corporation to push for oil exploration and development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or about commercial trapping by natives for the New York fur market? It seems to me to be racist if you either condemn or pardon someone based on their ethnic background.

Similarly, we have no trouble castigating a Charles Hurwitz for destroying the last wilderness redwood forest, but sometimes feel a sympathy for the enthralled loggers. of course Hitler deserves greater condemnation, but the fellow pushing Jews into the showers is committing evil, too. The industrial workers, by and large, share the blame for the destruction of the natural world. They may be slaves of the big money boys, but they are generally happy, willing slaves who share the worldview of their masters that Earth is a smorgasbord of resources for the taking. Indeed, sometimes it is the hardy swain, the sturdy yeoman from the bumpkin proletariat who holds the most violent and destructive attitudes towards the natural world (and towards those who would defend it). They are victims of an unjust economic system, yes, but that should not absolve them of what they do. (This is not to deny that some woods workers oppose the destruction of the old growth, that some may even be EF!ers, but merely that it is invalid to pardon someone because of the rung they occupy on the economic ladder.)

A willingness to let our actions set the finer points of our philosophy and a recognition that we must indeed act. It is impossible to debate endlessly the finer points of a dogma, to feel that every nuance of something has to be figured out before you can act. In fact, many political movements become simple debating societies where the participants sit around masturbating and never get down to the vital business as hand. Others argue that you have no right to be concerned about the environment or to do anything to preserve it until you are living a pure, non-impacting lifestyle. We will never figure it all out, we will never be able to plan any campaign in complete detail, none of us will ever transcend a polluting lifestyle — but we can act. We can act with courage, with determination, with all the deliberateness we can muster, with love for things wild and free. We can’t be perfect, but we can do. Earth First! is not an armchair, passive, vicarious tribe. We are warriors. We are a warrior society. We have a job to do.

An acknowledgement that we must change our personal lifestyles to those more harmonious with natural diversity. Yes, we must eschew surplusage. We must endeavor to practice what we preach. But to one extent or another, we are all captives of our economic system and cannot break entirely free. Arne Naess points out that we are not able to achieve a true deep ecology lifestyle but it is the responsibility of each of us to begin to move in that direction. There are trade offs — flying in a jetliner to help hang a banner on the World Bank in Washington, DC, in order to bring world attention to the plight of the tropic rainforests; using a computer to produce copy for a newspaper printed on tree pulp that will catalyze people to take action; driving a pickup truck down a forest road to gain access to a proposed timber sale for preventative maintenance. We need to be aware of these trade offs, and to make the best possible effort to limit our impact.

A commitment to maintaining a sense of humor, and a joy in living. Most radical activists are a dour, holier-than-thou, humorless lot. Earth First!ers are different. We aren’t rebelling against the system because we’re losers or unhappy. We’re fighting for beauty, for life, for joy. We kick up our heels in delight at the wilderness day, we smile at a flower, a hummingbird. We laugh. We laugh at our opponents — and we laugh at ourselves.

An awareness that we are animals. Human beings are primates, mammals, vertebrates, animals. EF!ers recognize their animalness; we are not devotees of some Teilhardian New Age eco-la-la that says we must transcend our base animal nature and take charge of our evolution in order to become higher, moral beings. Instead we believe we must get back in touch with being animal, to glory in our sweat, hormones, tears, and blood. We are in a struggle against the modern compulsion to become dull, passionless androids. We do not live sanitary, logical lives; we smell, taste, see, hear and feel Earth; we live with gusto. We areAnimal.

An acceptance of monkeywrenching as a legitimate tool for the preservation of natural diversity. No, all Earth First!ers don’t monkeywrench, perhaps not even a majority, but there should be a reluctance to condemn the idea and general practice of monkeywrenching. Look at an EF! t-shirt. Chances are there’s a monkeywrench somewhere on it. The mystique and lore of “night work” pervades our tribe, and with it a general acceptance that properly done monkeywrenching is a legitimate tool for defense of the wild by some individuals. This, too, is an important litmus test, I believe. It sets us apart from other groups, it helps define the specificity of being an Earth First!er.

These are general guidelines. They are not the word of the Goddess, they are not meant to be dogmatic. But they are all fundamental to Earth First!, I believe, and have been fundamental to our tribe since its genesis in that Mexican lava field. They are what distinguish us from other groups, what define us as an entity. There is a range in all of them and many of them call for a tolerance of extremes. No, you don’t have to be a misanthrope who cants “Fuck the Human Race!” around a campfire at the Round River Rendezvous, but you tolerate that honest sentiment. You don’t have to monkeywrench or even encourage it, but you don’t condemn another EF!er for trashing a ‘dozer. You may disagree with an essay in The Earth First! Journal criticizing the notion of the “noble savage” or one praising disease, but you accept their subjects as legitimate areas of inquiry and discussion. It is, I think, tolerance for the above points, not necessarily 100% agreement with them, that marks the boundaries of Earth First!.

By being out of the mainstream of Humanism, we are open to many attacks — both expected and unfair. We are on the edge. We are groping. But in my mind, the above statements establish the parameters of what Earth First!ers are. They leave room for considerable diversity, but they draw a circumscribed line.

From the beginning, I have believed in Earth First! being a decentralized, grassroots tribe. I am content to see it develop as it will. As I said earlier, I have no desire to dictate what Earth First! is, but I do think these points represent the mainstream of Earth First!. If you vehemently disagree with them, I encourage you to become involved with another radical green group or start your own. There is considerable room for a diversity of groups defending Earth. Earth First! can cooperate with other groups, even when we do not see eye-to-eye, so long as there is a mutual respect and tolerance.

On the other hand (and I am absolutely serious about this), if I am out of the mainstream of Earth First! with these views, then please let me know and I will move on. I have no desire to embarrass good activists for Earth if the above points are not considered crucial or are detrimental to what they are trying to do. If Earth First! is no longer what I envision it to be, then I will accept that and wish the new Earth First! well. But I have no energy to continually debate the above points within my tribe and will seek my campfire elsewhere.

I apologize if my comments above seem fractious or ill-tempered. I genuinely like nearly everyone I have encountered in the Earth First! movement. But in my seventeen years as a full-time wilderness activist, I have seen what the pressures of moderation, of co-option, of “mellowing” can do to a group. If we sanitize our style, our view, our message, our tactics in order to offend no one, in order to attract more and more people to Earth First!, we will lose what makes us “Earth First!.” If we extract the piquancy, the hot green chiles, from Earth First!, we will be pabulum.

Let’s listen to our critics, let’s grow with that criticism, but not jettison our biocentrism, or lost either the “Earth” or the “First” or the “!” in our name.

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