Eco-Avengers: Just Monkeywrenching or Ecoterrorism?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 26, 2016 8
What actions do you deem too risky when it comes to preserving our wild and “protected” places from harm? ©Namolik/, flickr

What actions do you deem too risky when it comes to preserving our wild and “protected” places from harm? ©Namolik/, flickr

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?

Harmless monkeywrenching

Monkeywrenching tactics include contaminating the fuel of bulldozers. ©Jeremy Buckingham, flickr

Monkeywrenching tactics include contaminating the fuel of gas-pipe-laying equipment. ©Jeremy Buckingham, flickr

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.

In 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill began her 738-day stay in a 1,000-year-old California redwood to protest destructive logging. ©Idee Contagiose, flickr

In 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill began her 738-day stay in a 1,000-year-old California redwood to protest destructive logging. ©Idee Contagiose, flickr

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.

The Rainbow Warrior (I and II) has blocked a Russian whaling fleet, protested French nuclear weapons testing and stopped ships with cargos of coal and palm oils. ©Glen, flickr

The Rainbow Warrior (I and II) has blocked a Russian whaling fleet, protested French nuclear weapons testing, and stopped ships with cargos of coal and palm oils. ©Glen, flickr

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, man-made 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,



  1. Khaled Hariri May 26, 2016 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    Is not conservation of cultural heritage part of environmental conservation. KSA air force supported by the USA and so-called Arab Alliance during the past year literally demolished hundreds of cultural sites throughout Yemen. When we talk about eco-terrorism we need to add military actions targeting cultural heritage of other countries. Other examples were shown by ISIS in Iraq and Syria

  2. Ogwal Joseph Jones May 26, 2016 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    It works where democracy and civil liberties are strong and where leaders respect the views of citizens. it also may work in places where investors can be held accountable by citizens, either through silent protests (not to buy or consume) or more open mechanisms like monkey wrenching or demo’s. But technically, environmental economist are supposed to capture both direct and indirect attributes in the area of influence of the project to allow payment for offsets be done, if all mechanisms to mitgate are not effective. Among the linear infrastructure projects, pipelines pose the least risk on the environment in terms of footprint, but bse of the hazardous nature of oil, post construction risks is often high, but still good risk response plan can suffice to mitigate such risk.

  3. John Davis May 2, 2016 at 5:50 am - Reply

    Will a new generation of eco-lit writers revive the monkeywrenching themes of Ed Abbey? Surprising, really, how seldom fiction creates heroes who fight the destruction of wild Nature. An intriguing possibility for eco-fiction could be imaginary heroes bringing back the extirpated species (Cougars and Wolves, particularly) that wildlife agencies are failing to restore.

  4. Reed Noss May 2, 2016 at 5:49 am - Reply

    It is part of the American tradition and a necessary part of the toolbox.

  5. Ramakrishna Venkatasamy May 2, 2016 at 5:48 am - Reply

    When nothing else works……….

  6. Thomas Sawyer May 2, 2016 at 5:47 am - Reply

    There will probably always be the need for “calculated” risks in this type of activity

  7. Richard E Kotowksi April 28, 2016 at 11:16 am - Reply

    What we send out to the world (good or bad) we receive back multiplied.

  8. Nine Quiet Lessons April 26, 2016 at 8:59 am - Reply

    I tend to think it’s valid, as long as it doesn’t cause physical harm to the workers in question.

    I take a dimmer view of ecoterrorists who attack research projects, though; in one case, scientific illiteracy combined with misapplied zeal resulted in the destruction of rare specimens at a plant genetics lab that were the only surviving members of their species. The activists believed the lab was making “frankentrees,” but they were actually doing important conservation work.

    And that’s the danger with all kinds of monkeywrenching, whether they veer into ecoterrorism or not: you have to rely on a bunch of private individuals, who may or may not understand what’s actually going on, to do the right thing. I think actual effective and meaningful change is going to have to come at a policy level, rather than stopping a few logging projects here and there.

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