Monday, December 29, 2008

Dave Foreman and Earth First!

Recently I got word of an upcoming attempt to breathe some new life into Earth First! which like many groups has been struggling to keep going in recent years. There are plans being made for a roadshow in 2009. I thought the following paragraph was particularly important.

We need to reconnect to the multi-generational aspect of Earth First!, which has fallen by the wayside in recent years. We need to broaden our network’s base—from radical rural grandparents to revolutionary urban youth. We need to re-establish lost relationships with scholars and scientists who resonate with us. We need to re-inspire musicians and artists to contribute their passion to our battles.

I've probably mentioned Derrick Jensen, a writer who shares my passions and values but rambles too much for me to completely enjoy his books. Fortunately, Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros, is published under his name but really amounts to essays by the people he interviews. Of the 30 or so interviews, I recognized 2/3 as major names in this field; so far, I've only read one interview with someone unfamiliar to me and immediately got one of his books from a local library.

But the first interview in the book is with Dave Foreman, who needs no introduction but I'll provide one with an article I wrote a couple years ago.

He was older, taller, thinner, quieter than I expected, having mentally locked him into an earlier time. I’d missed chances to meet him years ago so when I learned that Dave Foreman was going to be speaking in St. Paul, I made sure I didn’t miss the opportunity again. Among contemporaries, there is no one who has influenced my world view more than Foreman, through the writings and values he helped bring to the public through the Earth First! Journal and Wild Earth, espousing direct action in the 1980s and conservation biology in the 1990s.

Foreman remains a registered Republican who considered Barry Goldwater a hero, but is quick to point out that in 1989 Goldwater said that the Republican Party had been taken over by a bunch of kooks. Foreman blames Reagan for destroying bipartisan support for environmental issues, and describes our current political situation as creeping fascism. Along with citizens’ lack of concern for nature, he deplores our willingness to ignore the Bill of Rights.

During his noon presentation to mostly Macalester College students, he described the historic split between John Muir’s belief in the conservation of nature for its own value and Gifford Pinchot’s Forest Service view of the natural world as a resource. In the 1970s, environmentalism became defined as effectively a human health movement. While acknowledging the value of this aspect of the movement, it’s of little interest to Foreman and he argues that the movement needs to be taken back by nature lovers and treehuggers who are willing and proud to use emotion as well as science, who discuss values and vision as well as numbers. He sees climate change as the issue likely to bring environmentalists and conservationists together because it affects both areas of interest.

I think there are only three ways for our civilization to transform into one in keeping with my values: enlightenment (wishful thinking), revolution (inconceivable), and collapse (inevitable). Regarding predictions that there will be 9-10 billion people on the planet by mid-century, Foreman doesn’t believe we’ll ever reach those numbers because the crash will happen first. He thinks one of the best lifestyle choices for conservationists to make is to not have children, and not only because he doesn’t particularly like people.

When I asked him after the day’s talk how much hope he really had considering our civilization and population, he made a circle with thumb and index finger and it was not part of an OK sign. Knowing he’s not going to win (in the short term) does not mean he’s willing to stop fighting.

The one topic I wish I’d explored further with him is animal issues, not because either of us will ever change opinions or to argue which we agree is pointless, but because I’d like to understand his thinking on this. He cites the birth of lynx in Minnesota as something to get excited about, that we should have Lynx Day and celebrate but also is only an animal welfarist; he seemed to scoff at state agencies as resourcist but values connections with hunters.

I have one foot firmly in the conservationist camp and the other equally firmly in the animal liberation camp, though I seem to be the only person who believes such a split is possible. Though I often cringe at how little animal lovers know about nature and ecology, my position is that, for better or worse, the excitement and enthusiasm of nature lovers Foreman wants to see back in the movement is generated primarily by a love of individual animals, not by respect for ecosystems. I think his own examples of Lynx Day and mentioning the chill of excitement at hearing a wolf howl prove the point.

He opened his evening talk at Patagonia by calling this a time of despair for reasons which include mass extinctions, renewed whaling, our government’s anti-nature stance and cowardly Democrats, and the lack of enthusiasm and biocentric vision within the movement itself.

Considering his personal history, he was naturally asked several times during the day about what the government labels ecoterrorism. He thinks animal rights people have made stupid choices, but would like to see Japan’s whaling fleet on the bottom of the ocean. He said he left Earth First! due to the type of people becoming active in it as it became more anarchistic and more animal oriented, but didn’t mention the FBI pulling him from bed at gunpoint which must have been a factor.

He doesn’t know how much to believe about recent arrests because of FBI lies. He knew there was an FBI agent in the audience being bored; he said if his phone is tapped, they’re bored; if his bedroom is tapped, at his age, they’re bored.

He believes that among the causes of humanity’s biggest problems are our stubborn adherence to short term thinking and unwillingness to recognize/admit what is happening. It is not only foolish to rebuild parts of New Orleans but we should consider whether to spend large amounts of money trying to save the Everglades when water levels are going to rise and overrun them within 50 years.

Along with an old book I brought down to be signed, I picked up a copy of his newest Rewilding North America and look forward to his next The Myth(s) of the Environmental Movement. Though I would have preferred hours of conversation around a campfire, the few minutes we had after each of his talks were worth more than most days. I consider him one of my leading living heroes, and it’s never too late to meet one of those.

The interview with Jensen includes many more examples of Foreman using animal species as the exciting and joyful representation of wilderness and ecological health. I was originally planning to use this as an entryway to comparing radical environmentalists and animal rights activists, but I'm going to let that aspect wait a few days for its own post.

So back to the EF! split. Just as I feel somewhat torn these days between the two movements, the fracturing of EF! represented a difficult choice for me. My values in many ways were closer to those of the second generation of EF!ers than to those of the founders. I'm very concerned about animal issues and a believer in social justice but the new emphasis on political correctness made the use of the EF! name a joke. Earth was not first with these folks, but simply one part of an agenda which often seemed primarily focused on not offending each other. This attitude helped drive away many of the original folks mentioned in that quote way back at the top and it would be great to see the two sides reunite, though I have to admit I'm not very hopeful.

The split also turned one publication into two. The EF! Journal, linked to above, continued as a source of news of and reporting on events in the movement with a generally radical tone, while the more serious wilderness scientists started the fabulously high quality Wild Earth which like many magazines folded a few years ago.


Allan Stellar said...

Great piece! Love it!

My spouse used to hang out with Foreman while they were trying to start the Wilding thing. Joni (a good Ecofelon) has mixed feelings about him; sees him as an "Egobomb" and he always was taking credit for ideas others came up with. Foreman didn't like to be challenged. He prefered synchophants.

Still, the man is a legend in my book.

So what do they say you should do if you meet Buddha along the road?

greentangle said...

Thanks, Allan.

I'm sure Joni's mixed feelings are right on target. I could have written about when I raised a controversial topic with him, or when I witnessed a young woman mention that she'd first heard of him via ecofeminists--neither done in a challenging way, but in both cases I thought he quickly became defensive and quite ready to be offensive.

But who's perfect? My first words to him were to thank him for all he's done over the years and that's the most important part to me.

Sally said...

First time I heard about this rendezvous thing EF! was doing, I remember asking Foreman (over beer after a lecture) how, if he was such a misanthtrope, he could tolerate being in such a huge group of people! He just said "it's different." I went, and it was (before the split).

Am I really a redneck if my dog looks like a wolf? [grin]