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The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

December 25, 2018


“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.”

-Edward Abbey


I’ve had this on my list to read for years. Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, about his time as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in the late 1950s, is one of my favorite books. I finally picked up The Monkey Wrench Gang after reading The Overstory— the characters in this book were inspiration for the tree-sitting eco-activists in Richard Powers’s novel.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel about four environmentalist pranksters who spend their days sabotaging various development projects. Doc Sarvis, a quirky, wealthy surgeon; Bonnie Abbzug, his feminist girlfriend; “Seldom Seen” Smith, a river guide; and George Hayduke, a Viet Nam Vet who proclaims, “My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.” (George Hayduke was later donned as the pen name of a prolific author of prank books.) Their mission is to toss a “monkey wrench” into the works of anyone wanting to strip mine a mountain, log a forest or build a dam that floods a canyon.

Stylistically, The Monkey Wrench Gang is part screed, part western, part beat prose and part keystone cops. The gang burns down billboards, sabotages logging equipment and dreams of blowing up the Glenn Canyon Dam. Which all sounds fairly sinister, but it feels more like a mad-cap comedy with the gang’s over-the-top antics and sometimes incompetence. So much of the novel is dedicated to the group outwitting and evading authorities, pressing their luck more and more with each stunt, that one reviewer compared it to Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons.

Abbey railed against Glen Canyon Dam in Desert Solitaire, even as the canyons he loved were being turned into Lake Powell. In a rare film of him in front of the dam, he says it’s justified to “resort to whatever means necessary to defend our lands from destruction, invasion.”

The Monkey Wrench Gang was seminal in the environmental moment in that it partly inspired Earth First!, the first radical environmental conservancy group, drawing supporters from various hippy and anarchist groups to the cause. Over the years, Earth First! participated in a wide range of civil disobedience, from tree sits to their “crack” stunt at the Glen Canyon Dam. They were a predecessor to Greenpeace, the Earth Liberation Front and PETA. In a day when our President has zero qualms about destroying the environment, casually denies climate science and would extract every ounce of resource from the planet if he knew how, an activist environmentalist movement is perhaps more important than ever.

It’s also interesting to consider The Monkey Wrench Gang in the context of a post-9/11 world, where the term “eco-terrorism” doesn’t have quite as much charm (if it ever did). The Monkey Wrench Gang has the advantage of fiction, a cartoonish world where nobody gets hurt. But the activism it inspired has caused millions of dollars in damage over the years, and some of the activities advocated by environmental extremists—from tree spiking to arson—can be deadly.

Anti-environmentalist conservative groups love the term “eco-terrorism,” because it conveniently allows them to put Edward Abbey, Ted Kaczynski (the recluse mail bomber who was ultimately set off by the destruction of the wilderness near his remote Montana cabin) and Al Gore in the same sentence. In 2003, a conservative lobbying group proposed to expand the definition of “terrorist organization” to include any group organized to deter people from “participating in an activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources.” A year later, the deputy assistant of the FBI said eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists were “our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.” This all seems like a complete over-reaction, but it does illustrate the danger of advocating for violence or endorsing a “by any means necessary” approach to any cause. There’s also an interesting point where the political spectrum is warped by extremist views, and the people on both sides start to look alike. From the outside, it becomes hard to distinguish gun-loving environmentalist George Hayduke from a gun-loving doomsday prepper, a person who wants to bomb a dam from a person who wants to bomb a church, etc.

Activism should be judged by its effectiveness as a change agent. A media-grabbing prank, stunt or protest might be the right thing for a cause. Many important movements, from civil rights to women’s suffrage to Viet Nam protests, started with messy and sometimes violent activism. But the ultimate goal must be systematic change, which usually requires a legislative solution. Any activism that fails to gain the support of the electorate—either because it fails to gain attention, fails to persuade, or actively dissuades—is a failure. As much as I like Abbey, I disagree with his assertion that any means is justifiable. The wrong type of activism can easily turn public support against a cause.

As seminal as The Monkey Wrench Gang was for injecting activism into the environmental movement, what that activism has and can become when taken to extremes is a little more problematic. Which is maybe a long-winded way of saying there’s a lot to think about in this book, particularly from the vantage point of 40 years after it was written, when all the “-isms,” —environmentalism, activism and terrorism—have evolved in their meaning, role and importance.

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