When timber framer Will Elwell heard that a natural gas pipeline was going to run through his town of Ashfield, Massachusetts, he decided to take action by making a visual statement. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s classic 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, he built a replica of the author’s Walden Pond cabin in the path of the Kinder Morgan fracked-gas pipeline. The proposed pipeline could potentially destroy stands of old-growth hemlocks and pollute local water supplies.
Not only is Elwell’s cabin construction intended to call attention to the proposed pipeline and rally community support against it, it is meant to force Kinder Morgan to have to apply for demolition permits to tear the cabin down, creating a practical and bureaucratic obstacle, too.
Are feats such as Ewell’s obsolete and a throwback to the pre-9/11, environmental activist days, or are they needed more than ever in the face of the current, unrelenting Congressional attacks on our environment?
Monkeywrenching is defined as “nonviolent disobedience and sabotage carried out by environmental activists against those whom they perceive to be ecological exploiters.” It’s a term that came into use after the publication of Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which described the activities of a group of “environmental warriors” in Utah and Arizona. Monkeywrenching is typically motivated by a regard for the preservation of life and is ordinarily expressed in one of two forms: either nonviolent civil disobedience or sabotage that does not directly endanger others.
The approach Abbey’s characters take for their monkeywrenching involves destruction of unattended property by guerrilla methods, such as contaminating the fuel of deserted bulldozers, cutting power lines or pulling up survey stakes. Cutting fishing nets or scuttling whaling vessels are other examples of sabotage that doesn’t directly endanger people.
Familiar nonviolent civil disobedience scenarios include the July 2015 “kayaktivists” who impeded the progress of the MSV Fennica, a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker, which was carrying oil-drilling equipment to the Arctic. A very famous case is that of Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a 1,000-year-old California redwood for 738 consecutive days beginning on December 10, 1997. Her goal was to call attention to the environmentally destructive logging practices of the Pacific Lumber Company.
Dangerous monkey business
But what once were considered hurtless exploits in the name of a larger good took on a sinister connotation after 9/11. In his 2015 book All the Wild that Remains, author David Gessner questions whether Abbey’s type of eco-activism is appropriate for the post-9/11 world. Today, especially in the current political climate, many equate monkeywrenching with ecotage or worse: ecoterrorism (which is a misnomer and more properly applied to highly radical and rogue deeds or individuals).
It can’t be denied that there are examples of ecoterrorism. Tree spiking was first used in 1984. In order to damage chain saws or blades at sawmills, metal or ceramic spikes are hammered into the trunks of trees. Spikers usually mark trees or anonymously alert companies and government agencies of their activities so as to avoid harm to loggers. But while spiking has halted or delayed some U.S. Forest Service logging contracts, it has also caused the serious injury of one sawmill worker. Too, markings on trees, along with the knowledge that a stand has been spiked, may be lost over the many years that a forest stands. Consequently, any spiking is likely to pose significant long-term danger. Arson is another ecoterrorism tactic. It has been used at sites such as housing developments, SUV dealerships and chain stores.
Monkeywrenchers have themselves suffered illegal sabotage, death and harassment. The most famous case is the 1985 bombing by French intelligence agents of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand, which killed a photographer. The Greenpeacers had been disrupting French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Julia Butterfly Hill faced numerous attempts by the Pacific Lumber Company to force her down out of her tree, including the use of floodlights and loudspeakers.
Last week, on April 19, 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that Earth’s record monthly heat streak has hit 11 months in a row, which is a record in itself. That tops a run of 10 straight months set in 1944. Climate scientists say that El Niño and rapid, human-caused global warming are to blame.
Three days later, on April 22, 2016, the world was supposed to be celebrating Earth Day.
Do you think monkeywrenching is still a relevant tactic today against environmental threats, or are physical actions in defense of the environment too risky in the post-9/11 world?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,