Carnival, Spectacle, and Earnestness

In the early 80s when Dave Foreman founded Earth First!, he emphasized the importance of humor. For example, near the mid-late 80s, when the group was coping with an enormous split in the membership, Foreman wrote in “Whither Earth First!?” that the group should have:

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.

That ethic truly did define early Earth First!, which always had the media asking, “Are they serious or joking?” The answer: both! …maybe.

In our current age of irony and memes, the time is ripe for a renewal of the Earth First! carnival ethic. I’ve written before about how troubled I am by spectacle, afraid of the media’s ability to shape any narrative to suit its purposes. Intentionally creating a spectacle could mitigate these effects, and allow a 21st century wilderness revival to even use spectacle a little to its advantage. Consider the way Earth First! gained enormous amounts of media attention with “the cracking of Glen Canyon dam,” where four eco-radical pranksters rolled a piece of plastic down the dam to make it appear as though it had cracked.

In addition, a carnival ethic would serve to protect the more serious, earnest elements of the movement. During the cracking of Glen Canyon, Edward Abbey gave a hilarious speech before an audience of 70 or so people, distracting law enforcement while the merry pranksters “cracked” the dam:

We are gathered here today to celebrate three important occasions: the rising of the full moon, the arrival of the Spring Equinox, and the imminent removal of Glen Canyon Dam.

I do not say that the third of these events will necessarily take place today—although I should warn you that some of my born-again Christian brothers and sisters have been praying, night and day, for one little pree-cision earthquake in this here immediate vicinity, and I do predict that one of these times their prayers will be answered—in fact, even now, I think I perceive an ominous-looking black fracture down the face of yonder cee-ment plug—and this earth will shake, and that dam will fall, crumble, and go. Glen Canyon Dam is an insult to God’s Creation, and if there is a God he will destroy it…

And at the beginning of their guide to “monkeywrenching,” or ecologically-motivated sabotage, Abbey wrote: “I’m not advocating illegal activity — unless you’re accompanied by your parents, or at night.”

Consider the way it is looked down upon to talk about suicide and mental health seriously. Your group will get rather angry with you. Why are you bringing everybody down? But if you can find a way to joke about it, you can shield yourself from these problems while maintaining your ability to actually address the issues.

Do not be put off, then, by my grand manner, friends. You can be assured that I am being very, very serious.

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