It is not possible to source the beginning of a social movement for the protection, conservation, preservation or liberation of the earth. Perhaps that is because as long as there have been human acts of atrocity against the earth, there have been somewhat environmentally-conscious human responses. Ancient cultures in India, China and Peru practiced methods of agriculture that mitigated or tried to prevent soil erosion. Greeks and Romans conserved forest groves in an attempt to prevent complete deforestation.
Environmentally driven action did not simply emerge from nothingness in the discourse of human civilization. It has been ongoing, developing, expanding, diversifying and responding to the changing circumstances of society and the changing state of the earth.
The modern western radical environmental movement has materialized through centuries of criticism of modern excess. Examples of such criticism can be found in European Romanticism or New England’s Transcendentalism. More recently, the efforts of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Frances Power Cobbe, George Bird Grinnell and others have resulted in the first conservation and nonhuman advocacy organizations in history, such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and the National Anti-vivisection Society. Many of these same early figures were instrumental in the creation of the first National Parks.
The fervent political climate of the 1960s and 70s together with a growing awareness environmental science and a growing resentment towards the dominant, bureaucratic and leviathan-like non-profits of the day (such as the Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund) translated into a much more robust and exponentially progressing ecological movement. Long before the headline-grabbing actions of modern radical environmentalists or government-branded “eco-terrorists”, movements and organization of this era fought with zeal to protect the earth. Cesar Chavez was one major precursor to what would be today called environmental justice. In the early 1960s he led boycotts with his organization the United Farm Workers of American against the grape growers of California. His activities were important on shedding light onto the injustices that farm workers face in relation to pesticides, high cancer rates and birth defects. The American Indian Movement, established in the late 1960s to preserve “Sovereignty, Land and Culture” conducted occupations of places such as Alcatraz Island and Mt. Rushmore in protest of the United States Government’s illegal seizures of land. Founded in 1972, the black eco-revolutionary organization MOVE organized against pollution, zoos, and other institutions of industrial capitalism. MOVE held a deeply biocentric philosophy that predated the Deep Ecology movement, created by the founded John Africa, which asserts that, “Nothing is more important or as important as Life, the force that keeps us alive.” MOVE’s goal was:
“Revolution, a revolution to stop man’s system from imposing on life, to stop industry from poisoning the air, water, and soil and to put an end to the enslavement of all life. Our work is to show people how rotten and enslaving this system is and that the system is the cause of homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, alcoholism, racism, domestic abuse, AIDS, crime, war, all the problems of the world. We are working to demonstrate that people not only can fight this system, they must fight they system if they ever want to free themselves from endless suffering and oppression.”
The 1970s also saw the onset of a few major playes in the history of grassroots environmental struggle. In 1971, Greenpeace was born as a organization that utilized civil disobedience in protest of nuclear development and whaling. Subsequently, in 1975 the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society emerged as a more confrontational, sabotage-oriented answer to Greenpeace’s established pacifism. In the United Kingdom, a long-standing culture of hunt sabotage had evolved into the Animal Liberation Front by 1976.
The growing confrontational character of the 1970s continued into the 1980s, at least in terms of environmentalism. In 1980, Earth First! was founded by Dave Foreman and Mike Roselle (later to found the Rukus Society) among others. Inspired by the writings of Edward Abbey, particularly The Monkeywrench Gang, and philosophies of biocentrism such as Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” a small group of activists began a career of direction action, civil disobedience and sabotage all the while promoting “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!” Earth First! is renowned for devising the tactics of forest occupation, rural road-blockading, tree-sitting, and tree-spiking. The activities and ideology of the organization were present in its publication, the Earth First! Journal, which is still active to this day.
The publication of Green Anarchist in the UK and the growing movement of Green Anarchism and Anarcho-primitivism in the United States resulted in an increasingly left-leaning radical environmental movement of the 1980s. Earth First! had effectively become organized by anarchists and notable labor organizers such as Judi Bari. Many of the original founders and organizers later distanced themselves from the this trend while others, such as Bari, embraced it. Bari, one of the most influential and brilliant organizers in the history of ecological movements, was working to synthesize the leftism-rooted works of social ecology with the biocentric analysis of deep ecology. She referred to her approach as “revolutionary ecology”. She practiced this in her efforts to defend northern California’s redwood forests by appealing to the destructive nature of capitalism and the self-destructive nature of the timber industry. She ended up gaining many allies that were loggers, themselves concerned about their economic future.
By the early 1990s, the Earth Liberation Front had established itself in contrast to the UK Earth First! The activists wished to engage in ALF-type activity against the destruction of the planet. Almost immediately, ELF actions were being claimed all across Europe and in North America and have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage internationally. Most of these efforts, in the United State at least, has been met with intense political repression. By 2006, most of the activists involved with the Earth Liberation Front had been convicted, turned fugitive, or cooperated with government. The Earth Liberation Front has effectively been non-existent since.
Another form of increasing radicalization in response to increasing urgency in terms of global environmental complications was the public emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1994. The EZLN went public on January 1, 1994, the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The Zapatistas hold indigenous Mayan beliefs central to their political work. They are revolutionary in nature and have declared war on the Mexican government. The EZLN opposes economic globalization as it is detrimental to indigenous peoples across the world and the land base that they exist on. They seek indigenous control of resources and land in contrast with neoliberal policies of multinational capitalism that destroys local economies and land, such as the case with genetically-modified crops. It is crucial to note that the Zapatistas advocate for full armed struggle against their enemy, which pragmatically is the Mexican state but in reality is global industrial capitalism that exploits the entire earth.
Towards the Liberation of the Earth
It is with this sentiment that we must move forward. We cannot achieve our goals to “live wild or die” without an analysis global sociopolitical and economic systems and how they reinforce and stabilize each other. We cannot merely oppose industrial capitalism from a traditional leftist position without also understanding the roots of such institutions as sourced in earlier civilizations. We cannot advocate for the liberation of nonhumans while at the same time remaining ignorant of how the very circumstances that perpetuate their oppression also oppress many classes of people throughout the world. Yet we cannot ignore the plight of the songbirds, the northern boreal forests and the grey wolves as they struggle to find a place for existence within the confines of our abhorrent creation.
We must move forward with an understanding that is biocentric, socially, politically amd economically informed and relevant. It must be an understanding driven by a reverence for ecology, wilderness and what it means to be free. We must learn from the history of the struggle to deliver earth from humanity and all of its various manifestations. We must if we are to move beyond these fell horizons…