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  • The Tributaries of Radical Environmentalism
  • Bron Taylor

Radical environmentalism most commonly brings to mind the actions of those who break laws in dramatic displays of "direct action" in defense of nature. Such action—which may involve civil disobedience and sabotage—has led to charges that these activists are terrorists and fears that they may harbor or hope to develop weapons of mass death.1 The focus on their tactics, real and imagined, often obscures their religious motivations as well as their ecological, political, and moral claims, which I have analyzed in a series of articles published since the early 1990s.2 Here, after providing a primer on the beliefs and motivations that undergird radical environmental action, I examine the tributaries to such movements, primarily focusing on the period before they came into public view in 1980 after the formation of Earth First!.3

Contrary to a declaration in the movement's first official newsletter, Earth First! did not emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, but it may have seemed so to many of those attracted to the movement, and later for those who studied such radical social movements in retrospect.4 My evaluation examines the many distinctive but related streams—religious, ecological, philosophical, and scientific—that have been channeled into the radical environmental movement, and underscores that the emergence of Earth First! and other radical environmental movements that followed drew deeply from many sources that had been present for decades or more. [End Page 27]

A Primer on Radical Environmentalism

Radical environmentalists can be recognized easily by their diagnoses and prescriptions regarding the environmental crisis. Their diagnoses generally involve a critique of the dominant streams of occidental religion and philosophy, which, radical environmentalist argue, desacralize nature and thereby promote its destruction. In addition to aggressive and passionate resistance to such destruction, prescriptions generally include "reconnecting" with and "resacralizing" nature, as well as overturning the anthropocentric and dualistic beliefs they believe alienate people from nature and produce an ideology of human superiority that precludes feelings of kinship with other life forms. The most decisive perception animating radical environmentalism, however, is that the earth and all life is sacred and worthy of passionate defense.

Such perception and action requires that modern, industrial humans undergo dramatic change by adhering to an ecocentric (ecosystem-centered) ideology that includes compassion for all nonhuman species. This identity, in turn, depends on humans reconnecting with nature. This can be facilitated in a number of ways, but most importantly, by spending time in nature with a receptive heart, for the central spiritual episteme among radical environmentalists is that people can learn to "listen to the land" and discern its sacred voices.5 Other means activists employ to evoke and deepen a proper spiritual perception include visual and performance art, music, dancing, and drumming (sometimes combined with the use of sacred plants or "entheogens"). Such ritualization is believed capable of eroding the everyday sense of ego and independence in favor of feelings of belonging to the universe, kindling animistic perceptions of interspecies communication and evoking one's intuitive sense of the sacredness of intact ecosystems.6

Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, given their high-profile illegal activities, which sometimes have precipitated well-publicized court cases and led to long prison sentences, have become the best known branches of radical environmentalism.7 EF! and ELF activists certainly believe that modern political systems are corrupt and dominated by corporate and nation-state elites that cannot be reformed and must be resisted, which has tended to make EF! and the ELF among the most apocalyptic of all environmental movements. But from where have such movements come?

The present analysis explores the major tributaries inspiring and shaping the emergence of radical environmentalism. I then introduce two critical inspirations of the movement that emerged primarily in the 1970s, the decade before the founding of Earth First!, namely, deep ecology philosophy and [End Page 28] organized monkeywrenching campaigns, both of which are grounded in the perception that wild places are sacred spaces. Subsequently, I offer an overview of conservation biology, a scientific discipline that, since the founding of Earth First! in 1980, has influenced...


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