Earth First! Extraordinary First Encounters

On Saturday, February 25th, 2017, I had my very first encounter with activists from the radical direct-action group, Earth First!, at their biannual ‘Winter Moot’ gathering in Manchester. As a longtime enthusiast and admirer of their work and incredible passion for animals and the natural support systems on which we all depend, and as they (along with marine direct-action organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) will be the subjects of my doctoral thesis, I was beyond enthralled-and a tad nervous!- for the chance to finally meet them. A product of the unique socio-historical circumstances that underpinned the ‘fourth-wave’ environmental movement (Rootes, 2004) that emerged in the 70s, which was characterized by a decidedly anti-establishment and more critical attack on the systemic underpinnings of ecological decline, 1980 saw the rise of the environmental direct-action group, Earth first!. Today, as Rootes (2015) observes, it is the most widely known proponent of anarchic-style environmental direct-action in the English-speaking world (pg. 422). Founded by Dave Foreman and four other ‘disgruntled wilderness activists (Bookchin et al, 1980) who were similarly disillusioned by the inefficacies of the large, ‘bureaucratic Big 10’ environmental organizations of the time (Ingalsbee, 1996), much of the movement’s ethos and strategies were inspired by Edward Abbey’s famed novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which features activists sabotaging ecologically destructive activities and implements, such as the burning of bulldozers (Wall, 1999). In terms of their deepest held convictions, founder Dave Foreman shares with Bookchin (1991; 2005) the notion that hierarchical socioeconomic relationships lie at the heart of our socio-ecological crisis, and that as long as this is so, ‘there is very little hope for creating an ecological society that will not seek to dominate or exploit the earth’ (Bookchin et al, 1991, pg. 3).

Thus, Earth First’s organizational structure is emphatically non-hierarchical and in reality resembles a loose agglomeration of like-minded activists who are united in their shared ‘ecological’ identities and in their mutual passion for the protection of our biosphere and animal counterparts. The ‘apocalyptic eschatology’ of EF! Portends that the rapacious, unsustainable nature of industrial society must soon lead to its collapse (Taylor, 1991, pg. 261), and thus Earth Firsters! Are driven by a shared determination to ‘dismantle the industrial machine’ (Ingalsbee, 1996, pg. 271) in order to halt the tides of socio-ecological degradation that are afflicting our biosphere. Their demonstrations of solidarity with all of Earth’s life forms who form integral components of their ‘ecological selves’ are achieved via symbolic uses of animal costumes in order to deepen their empathy with threatened animal kin, as well as a range of spectacular direct-action tactics (Ingalsbee, 1996). One powerful example is when local EF! Activists in Oregon protested the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to liquidate old-growth stands on its lands. In response, activists strung a banner reading, ‘Bureau of Lies and Mismanagement’ across a busy street in the town, while over 100 other demonstrators built an enormous symbolic nest in the parking lot using logged bits from freshly cleared forest, which effectively blocked all vehicles from entering or exiting the parking lot headquarters. Inside the nest, activists wearing spotted owl costumes danced about and hooted in humorous protest (Ingalsbee, 1996, pg. 272). Such acts of ‘creative disruption’ and similarly theatrical forms of civil disobedience are not uncommon with Earth First!, acts that serve not only a powerful symbolic function but are also quite effective at garnering public and media attention, thus putting an end to business-as-usual (Ingalsbee, 1996, pg. 272)

The strong sense of social solidarity at Saturday’s event was instantly palpable and irresistible, as were the deep levels of interpersonal trust that one could easily observe amongst all participants at the event. Their table of relevant literature, on top of which was a ‘Trust Jar’ for participants to deposit small fees of their own accord for books purchased, featured an array of books on such topics as green political theory, anti-capitalism, anarchism, veganism, and even a splendid utopian graphic novel that I had read only a few weeks prior, ‘The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia’. Their motto of ‘everyone is crew’, along with their ‘All Gender Toilets’, are wonderfully commensurate with the egalitarian nature of their organization, wherein everyone was expected to help with general event-upkeep duties such as cooking and washing up. The meals that they prepared were exquisite, and 100% vegan, as one of their main philosophies entails the overall minimization of harm to living beings and a reduction of humanity’s harmful impacts on the natural world. It was truly inspiring, to say the least. They exceeded all of my expectations, and more. All of the theories I had ruminated on regarding how they think and what they might be like were confirmed. They were exceedingly warm, welcoming, kind, passionate, principled, and all-around lovely people. I left the event far too early (it was set to run until Sunday), but I left more convinced than ever before that I’ve chosen the right people to study as contemporary manifestations of a future and necessary ‘ecotopian’ ideal.

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