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A Chronicle of Edward Abbey and Radical Environmental Movements

In Review: Wrenched

The new film Wrenched, by filmmaker ML Lincoln, explores the life of environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey and the direct action environmental movements that he helped to inspire. Rather than focusing purely on Abbey himself, Lincoln told me in our correspondence about the film that, “Wrenched is about his actions.”  Lincoln, a longtime activist herself, worked on the film for over seven years and interviewed 40 people, including many of Abbey’s long-time friends and associates. This is her second feature length documentary, and follows her 2007 film Drowning River about the loss of Glen Canyon underneath the Powell Reservoir in Arizona.

 Glen Canyon DamPhoto by Mark Stevens, on FlickrThe construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon had a significant impact on the maturation of Edward Abbey’s worldview.

Wrenched excels at exploring the origins of direct action environmental movements in the United States, and particularly Abbey’s environmental activism in the Southwest.

In doing so, the film delves into Abbey’s early life and his emergence as a writer and activist, including his involvement in anti-war activism during the Second World War and the beginning of the nuclear age. This period was critical to the formation of his perspectives on the terrifying destructive power of industrial capitalism at the middle of the twentieth century. The film also touches on two events significant in the history of the Southwest that were also central to the maturation of Abby’s worldview: The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon, and the Central Arizona Project, through which Colorado river water was diverted to Arizona’s desert cities, pumped by coal from the Black Mesa plateau.

In the film, Abbey’s own participation in direct action, or “night moves” as he describes them, are explored in the context of his writing, his activism, and the movements that he helped to inspire. The film gives a rough history of the origins of Earth First!, the radical environmental group that that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. It examines several instances of state repression in the 1980s and 1990s, and highlights FBI infiltration, instigation, and, as some would say, entrapment, related to the so-called Arizona 5, a group of Earth First! members arrested for conspiracy to sabotage nuclear power plants. The film also describes the development, actions, and subsequent imprisonment of individuals associated with the Earth Liberation Front, another radical environmental group.

Present in these stories from the radical environmental movement, as well as in the film more broadly, are two questions Abbey and other movement participants struggled with: How far do you have to go in order to address the rapidly escalating ecological crisis, and what forms of action are most effective?

These questions are present in the connection the film makes between Abbey’s work and contemporary radical, direct action environmental movements. In particular, Tim DeChristopher, who served almost two years in federal prison from 2011 to 2013 for disrupting the Bush Administration’s efforts to auction land in southern Utah, recounts the inspiration he took from Edward Abbey’s books. In the film, he half-jokingly mentions how he started reading Edward Abbey when he was 18. “It’s kind of a dangerous age to read The Monkey Wrench Gang,” he says. “I was old enough to understand it, but not quite old enough to understand it wasn’t a manual.” Speaking of his fake bidding during the land auction, he reflects that “there was this feeling of resignation and hopelessness and I knew I want to do more and push things harder, so I went inside.”

DeChristopher’s actions and subsequent federal imprisonment provides a powerful example of the no-compromise attitude that looks beyond the kinds of action sanctioned by large environmental organizations and existing institutions, and for which Abbey was such a fierce advocate and practitioner.

My own experience as an activist involves similar inspiration from Abbey’s writings. I read Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang at roughly the same age as DeChristopher. Both books were important in planting seeds in my mind, exposing me to radical perspectives, and connecting me to the extraordinary energy of land and wild places. These seeds later developed into an involvement in the radical climate movement with Rising Tide North America, which has most recently involved participating in a series of blockades targeting oil-by-rail facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

While Wrenched excels at immersing the viewer in Abbey’s participation in, and influence on, radical environmental movements, it has some deep flaws. One of its major shortcomings is the rather uncritical treatment of the movements in question. While posing hard questions about the state of the ecological crisis and its root causes in industrial capitalism, the film largely presents a celebratory view of Abbey and early radical movements. Issues of racism, including Abbey’s personal views and those tied to the early Earth First! movement, are entirely absent. When I asked Lincoln about this choice, she described my questions about race as “not relevant” to the film and stated that this “film is about saving wilderness, not race, privilege, or oppression.”

I believe that the idea that these issues can be separated is an unfortunate and problematic perspective that replicates aspects of early radical environmental movement culture that many activists have worked hard to move beyond. The failure to engage with issues of gender, race, class, and other forms of oppression critically undermined Earth First! and other wilderness movements. The notion that race, privilege, and oppression can be absent from any discussion about addressing environmental issues is a serious misconception and is damaging to attempts to build the kind of movements necessary for systemic change. Furthermore, this perspective ignores the ways in which such dynamics play out within movements and shape who has access to power and leadership.

Presumably the film, in its focus on actions and movements, has as a target audience those already engaged in environmental activism or interested in getting involved. For this audience in particular, a critical presentation of the radical environmental movement’s history, lessons learned, and the interrelationships of power and privilege could not be more important. While Lincoln suggested engaging these issues would be a “whole other film,” I believe their engagement must be part of any exploration of the ecological crisis and environmental movements.

Despite this major shortcoming, the film has much to offer. In an interview in the film, Kieran Suckling, the Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, provides important context in understanding Abbey’s influence, as well as that of Earth First!. Far from allowing state repression to kill the passion and drive of the movement, Suckling believes that responses to state repression “reinforced it and pushed it out into a hundred different tentacles that [the government] couldn’t control.” This influence lives on in contemporary Earth First! organizing and in many organizations that emerged out of the radical movement cultures explored in the film, including the Center for Biological Diversity itself.

The stakes of the moment in which we live could not be higher. For Lincoln, “the environmental issues that we are facing today are now far more acute” than during Abbey’s life, and the question is not “whether or not we should get involved” but rather how to get involved and take action in a form that will make a difference. In the film, the author Terry Tempest Williams similarly describes our moment as one in which we must ask ourselves how serious we are about doing something and “what we are willing to do for a livable future.”

The first words we hear Abbey speak in the film are about displacement. “Like so many others in this century, I find myself a displaced person shortly after birth and have been looking half my life for a place to take my stand.” We no longer live with the luxury of this kind of time to find our place. Thankfully, a tremendous amount of experience precedes the moment in which some may be contemplating this question for the first time. Prior movements and individual actions, including those chronicled in Wrenched, will help us determine the place and form that our stand can take. This film shares important stories of those who have chosen and continue to choose to take their own 

David Osborn
David Osborn is a climate organizer with Rising Tide North America. He is also a faculty member at Portland State University.

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