Forty years ago a new phrase was dropped onto an unsuspecting world: for ‘monkey wrenching’ we have to thank a highly charged American with a Masters in anarchy studies and a mission to save the natural world.
To ‘monkey wrench’ twists the image of the heavy spanner used to fix machinery into a demonstration of eco-activists damaging earth-moving (damaging) machinery, thereby recasting this image into a post-Industrialist Grim Reaper mechanically shaping Armageddon.
While it might seem an exaggeration to say that the world changed after The Monkey Wrench Gang appeared, the book had a seismic impact on stirring up environmental consciousness with results we very much feel today: though this work of fiction is considered a sine qua non for eco-activists, just one example of the book’s potent legacy is seen in the extreme passive-aggressive tactics of the Sea Shepherd marine conservation organisation which pay clear homage to ‘monkey wrenching’; this is not surprising given that its leader, the pogontomically challenging pugnacious Paul Watson, was launching his own eco-odyssey at the same time as The Monkey Wrench Gang appeared. Watson’s argument is very much in step with Abbey’s essay Eco-Defence which argued that the people destroying wilderness and life-forms were the real terrorists, whereas the conscientious saboteur was engaged in an act of self-defence, as an anti-terrorist, trying to protect life against death.
What the book advocated was ‘eco-tage’: extreme, direct-action operations to cause maximum disruption even if it caused damage, in the pursuit of nature protection (eco-defence). The Monkey Wrench Gang in a sense was very much of its post-Vietnam War time but it was also ahead of its time, with a New York Times review calling it “a violently revolutionary novel”. As such it was a manifesto for the ‘eco-scofflaw’, cocking a snook at the law in defence of the environment.
There is another point relevant to today: with the current ‘War on Terror’ would the book’s author, Edward Abbey, have been prosecuted for his views and writings, given that only ten years ago the FBI made ‘eco-terrorism’ the Number One internal threat to the United States even though there was strong competition from the ‘War on Terror’ and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden humming along in over-drive ?
When Abbey died in March 1989 his body was buried by friends in the wilderness of the American South Western desert that he so loved, a burial unmarked and lost, in accordance with his wishes (and against federal burial law): “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff-rose or sage-brush or tree,” he said.
The Monkey Wrench Gang was a companion to an earlier, equally rasping, non-fiction publication, Desert Solitaire (1968), with Abbey having been a graduate of the University if New Mexico during the 1950’s; his Master’s thesis was titled ‘Anarchism and the Morality of Violence’, in which Abbey explained that while Tolstoy and Gandhi showed that some anarchists can be pacifists, by and large anarchism has been linked to revolutionary violence.
It is a measure of Abbey’s integrity that while his heart clearly followed anarchists like Bakunin and Proudhon, Abbey’s head told him that even his favourite anarchists had failed to satisfactorily justify violence against people: while Abbey actually never engaged in sabotage, clearly preferring the pen to speak louder than the sword, he was at heart an anarchist in the purest sense, promoting individual liberty and free association rather domination by ‘the state’. (please see web-link ‘1’, below).
While studying, and for periods ever after, Abbey worked as a fire-watcher and forest ranger in various national parks, giving plenty of time to reflect and come to the conclusion that mere civil disobedience was not enough and direct action was the only alternative.
It was the deserts, though, that moulded Abbey both as a person as well as his thoughts, to create the consummate ‘lone ranger’ after he had drunk deeply from the well of the rural Americana dreamscape that has beguiled many another: film star and environmentalist, Robert Redford, writing the Preface of a reissue of The Monkey Wrench Gang, described riding the famous Outlaw Trail from Montana to Mexico with a group that included Abbey: ‘I picked eight people to join me, the only requisite being a love of the West and an ability to ride and brave the raw elements. I reached Edward on a fire-watch in Glacier National Park. That is where he hung out very often while writing – on a fire-watch somewhere. I reached him on a radio-phone and asked him if he wanted to go. A bed-roll and a few personal belongings would be all he would need. Not much to the conversation, he said okay’ (please see web-link ‘2’, below).
The book. Its hero is George Washington Hayduke who is joined by three other activists – an anarchist doctor, a revolutionary feminist and a polygamist river guide – and they go out into the red rocks and desert to wage war on industrialisation: they destroy the fuel tanks of bull-dozers; they drive lorries over canyon edges; they blow up power-lines and disrupt strip-mines using lots of cunning, guile and gelignite. Their aim: the destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam that blocks the River Colorado.
In 1979 the eco-activist group Earth First! was founded by a gang of rugged conservationists in the mould of Edward Abbey who had all read his writings in depth; Earth First ! too were deeply cynical of the legislative process and were drawn to direct action, with Dave Foreman, one of the four founders of Earth First!, publishing a famous manual for direct action titled Ecodefense: A Field Guide To Monkeywrenching.
In March 1981 the Earth First! group symbolically unrolled a 300ft-long black plastic imitation “crack” down the side of the Glen Canyon Dam, thereby accomplishing at least in metaphorical terms the dream of Hayduke and his friends.
More recently The Monkey Wrench Gang prompted a comparison between American and British eco-writing (both fiction and non-fiction) by Robert Macfarlane, one of Britain’s leading environmental-naturalist writers; Macfarlane concluded that the British ‘has urged, not resistance, but refocusing. Edward Abbey’s prose rasps you like sand-stone, roughs you up, kicks your arse off the page and out into the land. Nothing like it has emerged in Britain.’ (please see web-link ‘3’, below). Jasper Humphreys