The Only Thing Left Worth Saving: Edward Abbey and Contemporary Environmentalism
Most people know Edward Abbey as an environmental visionary, one of the first to rally Americans to protect and defend the Southwest from environmental degradation. Most also know him as a radical vigilante, covertly burning billboards and pouring sand into the transmissions of bulldozers to stop — or at least slow — environmental devestation.
I, however, know him as a romantic: fiercely passionate, gloriously single minded, and radically unconcerned with civil responsibility. Throughout his life, Abbey persistently defended nonhuman entities, standing up for canyons and whiptail lizards and hills of great cascading spruce trees. Abbey’s most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, depicts four “vigilante idealists” who are on a mission to destroy the Glenn Canyon Dam, a massive state project which stopped the Colorado River, flooded hundreds of acres of pristine canyon lands, contributed to widespread fish die-offs, and drained a significant portion of the Colorado’s usable water.
Rather than address the dam’s resource-depleting impact on Southwestern communities, The Monkey Wrench Gang focuses almost exclusively on the dam’s destruction and alteration of the natural landscape. Abbey’s characters burn with protective love for “the glowing river flowing to the sea…canyons called Hidden Passage and Salvation and Last Chance… strange great amphitheaters called Music Temple and Cathedral in the Desert.” Abbey’s works depict environmentalism not as a practical solution to human problems, but as an offshoot of passion, fueled by the need to protect what you love.
Abbey’s devotion requires a kind of unselfish, true love which overrides individual happiness. Abbey doesn’t support environmentalism as a means to promote human comfort; he celebrates nature’s indifference toward the well being of society, the natural forces which send hurricanes and tsunamis to wash our cities away. Abbey’s passion requires agape, if you will, the love of nature for existing on its own terms, terms wildly unconcerned with human health or happiness.
Thousands of popular books and movies portray secret agents, private detectives, and stupidly heroic average Joes facing off against corporations and governments to protect loved ones. The Monkey Wrench Gang coheres to these conventions, replacing devotion to a person with attachment to a place. Abbey passes over concern for future civilizations to write environmentalism as Romeo and Juliet.
Instead of appealing to emotional attachment with nature, many modern conservation groups stress environmental degradation’s long term impact on society. Global warming activists often appeal to our instinct for self-preservation, instead of any special connection with the natural world — devastating floods and crop-killing droughts affect everyone, regardless of how they feel about nature. With increasing frequency, media and political forces approach natural protection as a means to practically advance human interests. Environmental practices, the new rhetoric goes, provide the only legitimate means to maintain our growth-based capitalist culture. If oil runs out, conventional agriculture spurs dangerous droughts, but green power and organic crops ensure stability and safety. Wanting to protect nature does not require loving — or even experiencing — the wilderness, only acknowledging society’s dependence on the existence of wild land somewhere.
Compared to the pragmatic environmentalism of many contemporary lobbying groups, Abbey’s vigilante movement doesn’t make much long term tactical sense. As opposed to presenting the government with viable, environmentally friendly alternatives to copper smelting and fracking, Abbey preaches the wholesale destruction of mining equipment. Instead of appealing to construction workers by providing safer, equally profitable jobs, Abbey’s vigilante idealists turn workers and governments against environmentalism by dynamiting bulldozers. While defending pristine wilderness against construction and degradation, Abbey (and many of his characters) accidentally set forest fires and leave chunks of burning metal strewn on the forest floor.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the sort of communing with nature Abbey promotes may be counterproductive to his goals. An increasing number of studies show residents of less developed natural areas produce larger carbon footprints; the transportation of food and conveniences to off-the-grid areas exacerbates environmental devastation. Moreover, naturalists agree not only development, but also human traffic, threatens the health of pristine ecosystems. Many well-regarded ecological developers support a sustainable model of growth which confines humans to bustling urban centers, warning against too much human interference with wild lands. Perhaps we’d all be better off holed up in our solar powered homes, leaving the environment in peace.
Sure, passion for nature inspires some citizens to defend the environment, but why rely on Abbey’s uncontrollable, potentially counterproductive love for nature, instead of focusing on the health and stability of our own societies? Because his work shows an appreciation of nature in itself, unconnected to any human concerns. Abbey’s work radiates respect for natural forces’ inhuman power, especially the Arizona landscape’s obvious incompatibility with human needs. After discovering the corpse of an elderly hiker in a remote area, Abbey describes the man’s death by thirst and exposure as “a ruthless, brutal process – but [also] clean and beautiful.” Human unhappiness — even human tragedy — is no justification for closing the portal to an infinitely different world.