Earth First! and the Ethics of American Environmentalism

Appalachians Against Pipelines

Keith Makoto Woodhouse, The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism (Columbia University Press, 2018)

For 57 days this year, environmental protester Nutty kept vigil from a monopod suspended 50 feet over a gravel road on Peter’s Mountain in Virginia Jefferson National Forest. She was sustained by only the provisions she brought and rainwater caught by tarps. In August, Nutty reflected on the experience:

What I’m trying to reach for through direct action isn’t a state that listens to me, and isn’t “effective” environmental regulatory agencies. It’s a world without pipelines or states or police. No, I don’t have any idea how the hell to get there, but I know I’m looking for a victory based on taking the power to decide it all—our present and our future and whether or not this pipeline will be in it—for ourselves.

So this is my final appeal to you. Take action, I don’t know what it’ll look like, but do something, and then another thing, and then try something else.

Reach for what we could create together, reach for things wilder and more brilliant than what we currently think ourselves capable of.

Love and Rage,

Though she eventually agreed to come down, her protest of the Mountain Valley Pipeline that threatens to cut across the Appalachian Trail gained the attention of the media, as well as a network of additional tree sitters, turning her into something of a regional folk hero.

What is most remarkable, though, is the way in which her actions drew from the civil disobedience tactics of the Pacific Northwest timber protests approximately 30 years prior. As was the case back then, direct action was favored over waiting for the government to get it right. Nutty’s peaceful act of civil disobedience earned not only public support, but also enough time for the community to litigate and delay the pipeline. These combined efforts reflect a sophisticated activist philosophy that has evolved from the early days of the radical environmental movement. Book cover of The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism

In his book, The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, historian Keith Makoto Woodhouse traces the history of radical environmentalism from the 1960s through the 1990s. He focuses on how the cultural and political conditions of this era created a space for the radical environmentalist group Earth First! to gain philosophical ground in America.

One of Woodhouse’s major contributions in this book is describing the development and circulation of Earth First!’s organizing philosophy of “ecocentrism,” also called “deep ecology” or “biocentrism.” According to Woodhouse, Earth First! radicals believed that “human beings and human society held no greater moral value than did nonhuman species and ecological systems.” They argued that modern development and cultural progress threatened the existence of natural resources, and ultimately human survival. As such, Earth First! believed that the only way to save humanity was by prioritizing nature above human consumption and development. Unfortunately, Woodhouse argues, this belief often ignored the social costs of its proposals—costs often borne by the most vulnerable members of society—and this ultimately contributed to the group’s splintering and decreased effectiveness.

Four common themes emerge across the book.

The radical environmental movement was never tied to a specific political party.

Earth First! identified as having anarchist roots, with loyalty to the nonhuman world. This meant that collaborations with political groups were flexible and not limited to partisan politics. For example, they officially organized in 1979 in response to the Sierra Club’s failed leadership in the 1970s. The lobbyist group refused to address the American cultural and political narrative that celebrated progress and industrialization over increasingly prominent environmental concerns such as natural resource depletion, consumerism, or overpopulation. Earth First! was willing to take a stand on these issues, even when mainstream environmental leaders wouldn’t.

In the early 1980s, conservative market capitalists and EarthFirst! shared distrust over the federal government’s oversight of grazing on Western public lands. Together, they argued for market competition over federal agency oversight of grazing permits. Though the partnership was limited given the conservative tendency to support private business and industry, EarthFirst! consistently demonstrated a willingness to build alliances with any party that benefited its longer environmental vision.

Earth First!’s three core tenants included: (1) a belief in ecocentrism where environmental objects such as rivers should have legal sovereignty independent from their value as a human resource; (2) a romantic vision of “pristine” wilderness where human absence marked healthy landscapes, even if that meant rewilding previously developed areas; and (3) direct interventions of symbolic civil disobedience (“ecotage”) over the democratic processes. Such tactics included human chains blockading bulldozers or spiking trees. At the core of their work was a belief that individual freedoms should be limited as the only way to ensure planetary survival. Their model rejected compromise and forwarded a sense of pessimistic urgency, which enabled the group’s flexibility in forging political partnerships.

A metal sign announcing the "Roadless Rule" is nailed to a tree in the National Forest.

Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest illustrates the “Roadless Rule” of American wilderness designation. Photo by U.S. Forest Service-Pacific Northwest Region, August 2015.

The debate over humanity’s place in “pristine” nature is central to our relationships with land and identity.

At the very center of every event he discusses, Woodhouse asks the nagging questions: Are we part of nature? Are we separate from it? And what does this mean for environmental philosophy? These questions determined the environmentalist agenda for decades, but without consensus (even today) the concept continues to evolve. Woodhouse offers President Bill Clinton’s “Roadless Rule” as an example, where government regulations prohibited road construction and timber harvesting on National Forest areas without existing roads. Though the measure was contested for several years in the courts, it was eventually left to stand, serving as “one of the most far-reaching legacies from EarthFirst!-style wilderness advocacy.” 

Ecocentric thought shapes our discussion of social justice issues, which can be problematic.

The influence of ecocentric thought on social justice issues can be problematic if conflated with holism, or viewing all of humanity as a single unified agent that allows for oversimplification of complex problems. Both the mainstream and radical environmentalist movements pushed against the cultural and economic notion of progress represented by consumerism and industry. For both, the goal was always to facilitate a deeper connection between humans and nature.

However, Woodhouse argues that some radical environmentalists went one step further, extending their ecocentric beliefs into holism by prioritizing nature over human issues regardless of social, economic, or cultural contexts. He argues that in this way, holism has the power to “flatten” social inequalities and ignore the fact that different people have different roles in the destruction of nature. For example, Earth First! saw no difference between those who led corporations and their workers in creating environmental harm; nor did they recognize the way that power structures simultaneously supported environmental harm and social oppression.

Some of Earth First!’s most widely publicized methods brought this interpretation of ecocentrism to a crisis point. Tactics such as tree spiking prioritized nature over the safety of humans, walking a fine line between civil disobedience and terrorism. This was most apparent in May 1987, when mill worker George Alexander was injured by shrapnel after a saw hit a spike embedded in a log. Though the spike was not necessarily connected to Earth First!, the association between tree spiking and the group was enough to garner significant public backlash and internal debate. Eventually, Earth First! began incorporating other less controversial tactics such as litigation and political pressure backed by scientific claims. Some of their more public fights included protecting the spotted owl and saving old growth forests from Pacific Lumber.

Can we protect the environment while still buying into a narrative of cultural “progress” on a national, or even global scale?

The environmental movement’s agenda has frequently conflicted with American ideals that favor economic and material growth, especially as industrialization has proven to be particularly damaging to the earth. However, at the end of the book, Woodhouse uses climate change to show how Earth First!’s philosophies offer potential instruction: “Responding to climate change must involve a recognition of inequity and history and an aspiration toward justice, and an understanding of how limits to growth are produced by politics and human decisions as much as by material absolutes.”  Woodhouse centers this response as “humility” where other knowledge systems participate in shaping our cultural and moral entanglements to the environment. It is not a promise of success, but Woodhouse seems to offer these parting words as an invitation towards ideological flexibility that will allow us to confront our changing world.

Issues such as social justice and cultural progress are almost always entangled with environmental debates.

In all, these themes demonstrate the importance of Earth First! as foundational to the modern environmentalist movement. Issues such as social justice and cultural progress are almost always entangled with environmental debates, complicating our ability to define the boundaries between human and nature. And while there aren’t any clear answers, the Virginia pipeline protests make a case for the success of the radical environmental movement in bringing effective strategies to meet today’s environmental crises.

The grassroots Virginia protesters drew from Earth First!’s methodologies, blocking roads and tree-sitting, in order to draw attention to the pipeline as a capitalist and colonial threat. Their public-facing methods successfully gained regional support and motivated additional protests. Litigation spearheaded by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, representing 13 environmental groups, mobilized scientific claims and environmental justice concerns in an effort to stop construction. This approach has forced a federal response, increased pressure on state and local politicians, and resulted in pipeline delays.

In the end, this toolkit of flexible methodologies has made space for multiple groups to wage complimentary wars with a single, unifying goal: drawing attention to our ethical connection to nature. So far, despite occasional setbacks, the results look hopeful, a testament to the legacy of radical environmentalism described so carefully in Woodhouse’s book.

Correction: The original version of this post claimed that George Alexander was killed by shrapnel from a tree spike. Alexander was injured, not killed. 

Featured image: Mountain Valley Pipeline protest. Photo by Appalachians Against Pipelines.

Kassia Krzus-Shaw is a Ph.D. student in the Composition & Rhetoric Program within the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research explores environmental storytelling about environmental restoration, health, and community identity. Contact