Ed Abbey’s Lost Letter Speaks On Monkeywrenching

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ed abbey gives nuke the fingerA few years ago, Orion Magazine ran some long-lost, unpublished missives from Ed Abbey to various recipients on sundry topics: his family about the mundane, a Tucson newspaper decrying a new police helicopter as another step toward an authoritarian state, and the University of Georgia in response to criticism of Earth First! and The Monkey Wrench Gang, which is posted here. Given the world’s current preoccupation with the word “terrorism,” it’s interesting to see Abbey tackle it three decades ago and even more interesting to consider Abbey’s defense that the book is simply fiction and not to be confused with actions in the real world. Disingenuous, given his role in Earth First!? Something to consider.

Eugene C. Hargrove, Editor,
Environmental Ethics, University of Georgia
3 November 1982

Dear Mr. Hargrove:
Thank you for inviting me to respond to your editorial re Earth First! and The Monkey Wrench Gang:

So far as I know, Earth First! as an organization—though it’s more a spontaneous grouping than an organization, having neither officers nor by-laws—is not “pledged to ecological sabotage.” If Newsweek said that, Newsweek is hallucinating (again). We are considering acts of civil disobedience, in the usual sense of that term, when and where they might be useful. For example, when and if the Getty Oil Co attempts to invade the Gros Ventre wilderness (Wyoming) with bulldozers, we intend to peaceably assemble and block the invasion with guitars, American flags, live human bodies and maybe an opposing D-9 tractor. If arrested, we shall go to jail, pay the fines and try again. We invite your readers to join us. A good time will be had by all.

As for that book, please note that The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel, a work of fiction and—I like to think—a work of art. It would be naive to read it as a tract, a program for action or a manifesto. The book is a comedy, with a happy ending. It was written to entertain, to inspire tears and laughter, to amuse my friends and to aggravate our enemies. (Aggravate their ulcers.) So far, about a half million readers seem to have found that approach appealing.

The book does not condone terrorism in any form. Let’s have some precision in language here: terrorism means deadly violence—for a political and/or economic purpose—carried out against people and other living things, and is usually conducted by governments against their own citizens (as at Kent State, or in Vietnam, or in Poland, or in most of Latin America right now), or by corporate entities such as J. Paul Getty, Exxon, Mobil Oil, etc etc., against the land and all creatures that depend upon the land for life and livelihood. A bulldozer ripping up a hillside to strip mine for coal is committing terrorism; the damnation of a flowing river followed by the drowning of Cherokee graves, of forest and farmland, is an act of terrorism.

Sabotage, on the other hand, means the use of force against inanimate property, such as machinery, which is being used (e.g.) to deprive human beings of their rightful work (as in the case of Ned Ludd and his mates); sabotage (le sabot dropped in a spinning jenny)—for whatever purpose—has never meant and has never implied the use of violence against living creatures. The characters in Monkey Wrench engage in industrial sabotage in order to defend a land they love against industrial terrorism.

They do this only when it appears that in certain cases and places all other means of defense of land and life have failed and that force—the final resort—becomes morally justified. Not only justified but a moral obligation, as in the defense of one’s own life, one’s own family, one’s own home, one’s own nature, against a violent assault.

Such is the basis of my characters’ rationale in The Monkey Wrench Gang. How the reader chooses to interpret all this is the reader’s business. And if the reader is impelled to act out in real life the exploits of Doc, Bonnie, Slim & Hayduke, that too is a matter for decision by the individual conscience. But first and last, it should be remembered that the book is fiction, make-believe, a story and no more than a story.

As for my own views on environmental ethics, I have tried to state them explicitly in the essay form: see The Journey Home (1977), Abbey’s Road (1979), and Down the River (1982).

Sincerely, Edward Abbey—Oracle

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.

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