Equal Parts Anger and Love

A posthumous interview with Edward Abbey

It’s been 50 years since Edward Abbey published his flame-thrower of a book, Desert Solitaire, his defense of the wild western deserts. How desperately the west — and the wild, and the world — needs old Ed today. What would he make of the stamper trucks shaking red rocks off the cliffs? What fine adjectives would he find for the drilling rigs on fracking pads spattered all the way from the Uinta Basin to the San Juan River? What would he say to the oil company executives who are cheerfully taking down the great natural systems that sustain life on the planet, in order to jack up profits that are already the highest since the pharaohs? How would he grieve for his beloved spotted toads, besieged by global warming, pipelines and roads? What would he say when he climbed to the hidden springs where for centuries the mountain lions have lain down with the lizards — to find the water gone, poisoned, and forced underground to fracture the rock to release the natural gas to earn a fat CEO $22 million a year? What would he say about the silent masses, the corrupted science, the solipsistic consumers, and sociopathic corporations? What could he tell us gloomy citizens about our moral responsibilities in a time of global warming and ecosystem collapse? (We might, admittedly, be less thrilled to learn what he thinks of the latest anti-immigrant rumblings to have seized the country.)

photo of labrador sniffing beehive
Edward Abbey would have turned 92 this past January. What would he have thought of the state of our environment?

But Ed’s gone, either gently desiccating in a desert grave or swearing softly in heaven, having ascended with his soul tied tightly to the soul of Leslie McKee’s wife, a kind Mormon woman who promised she would carry him heavenward when she herself went. All the same, his fierce love of the world is still with us in his rampaging books and letters. I found him in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, dog-eared and leaning slightly to the left, in a crowded section labeled “nature.” Then, with some serious slicing and splicing, I deciphered his answers to the questions that have been haunting me.1

Here is what he said:

Kathleen Dean Moore: If you drove a nail through the center of this decade, all of planetary history would swing in the balance. Global warming, massive extinction, poisonous air and land and water — all these have brought us to a hinge point in history. In this decade, we will lose it all, or we will redeem a just and thriving planet. Just telling you. Do you have words to describe this peril?

Edward Abbey: Humanity has entrapped itself in the burning splendor of technikos.2 We are cursed with a plague of diggers, drillers, borers, grubbers, of asphalt-spreaders, dambuilders, overgrazers, clear-cutters, and strip-miners whose object seems to be to make our mountains match our men — making molehills out of mountains for a race of rodents — for the rat race.3 My god, I’m thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives.4 The present course is one of premeditated suicide. 5 We are befouling and destroying our own home, we are committing a slow but accelerating life murder — planetary biocide.6

You’re a well-credentialed philosopher, Mr. Edward Abbey, MA from the University of New Mexico. Philosophers believe in the power of ideas to shape history. We know that it’s a crackpot cosmology that got the world into this scrape — a worldview that brags that humans are separate from and superior to the Earth, in charge and in control; that the planet and all its lives have no value except their usefulness to ours. We need a new set of answers to the foundational questions of the human condition — What is the world? What is the place of humans in the world? How, then, shall we live? Do you know the answers?

Though a sucker for philosophy all of my life I am not a thinker but — a toucher. I believe in nothing that I cannot touch, kiss, embrace — whether a woman, a child, a rock, a tree, a bear, a shaggy dog. The rest is hearsay.7 What else is there? What else do we need?8

Religions, all of them, tend to divorce men and women from the earth, from other forms of life.9 We are obliged to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on the earth are kindred.10 We are kindred, all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us.11

But if all of us are kin, then surely we don’t have the right to treat every creature in the whole buzzing world like chattel slaves, as if they belonged to us to ruin or to auction — coyotes and gut-shot cactus, entire fields of mice and crows. What would you call for instead?

Recognition of the rights of other living things to a place of their own, a role of their own, an evolution of their own not influenced by human pressures. A recognition, even, of the right of nonliving things — boulders, for example, or an entire mountain — to be left in peace.12 In demanding that humans behave with justice, tolerance, reason, love toward other forms of life, we are doing no more than demanding that humans be true to the best aspects of human nature.13

The kinship metaphor suggests that we and our brothers and sisters on the land share a common home. What does that tell us about what we ought to do?

With bulldozer, earth mover, chainsaw, and dynamite the international industries are bashing their way into our forests, mountains, and rangelands and looting them for everything they can get away with. This for the sake of short-term profits in the private sector and multimillion dollar annual salaries for the three-piece-suited gangsters.14

If our true home is threatened with invasion, pillage, and destruction — as it certainly is — then we have the right to defend that home, by whatever means are necessary. We have the right to resist, and we have the obligation. Not to defend that which we love would be dishonorable.15

Be of good cheer, the military-industrial state will soon collapse. Meanwhile, we must do all in our power to oppose, resist, and subvert its desperate aggrandizements. As a matter of course. As a matter of honor.16

Really, by whatever means are necessary? Killing?

Not people. We’re talking about bulldozers. Power shovels.17

Breaking the law?

Why not?18 You think this is a picnic or something?19 The “choice-of-evils” statute allows the intentional commission of an illegal act when the purpose of such act is to prevent a greater harm or a greater crime.20 “Protest is always justified,” said Gofman,“when it is the only means to make a deaf government listen.”21

But blowing up a railroad bridge, pushing a loader into the drink, as in The Monkey Wrench Gang? These days, people would call that eco-terrorism, and it’d be a long time before any one of your heroes passed a bottle around the campfire again. Police don’t like gang members either; they shoot them.

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 it is usually conducted by governments against their own citizens or by corporate entities 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. Sabotage, on the other hand, means the use of force against inanimate property. The characters in Monkey Wrench do this only when it appears that 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.22

We’ve got to talk about moral obligation. You wouldn’t believe how many people treat the environmental emergencies as just technological or scientific problems, economic problems or even national security problems. But honestly, taking whatever you want for your profligate life and leaving a dangerous and ransacked world for the next generation is a moral failure, and it calls for a moral response. You’re a philosopher: What are some of the moral reasons why we have to push back against the forces of destruction?

What I am concerned about is the world my children will have to live in, and maybe, if my children get around to it, the world of my grandchildren.23

That is a good utilitarian argument for action, based on the hope that it might make a difference to the people you care about. But you write so often about honor and dishonor that I wonder if you are working toward a virtue ethic, judging the rightness of actions not by whether they save the world (they probably won’t) but whether they spring from a virtuous character…

(Interrupting): and high moral purpose — concern for right and wrong, justice and injustice, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness.24

And an obligation to be loyal to the Earth?

Loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us — if only we were worthy of it.25

In any case, the beauty and existence of the natural world should be sufficient justification in itself for saving it all.26

Now you’re talking as though the natural world has intrinsic value — value in and of itself, not just because it’s useful to us. Are you affirming that the natural world should exist for its own sake, for its beauty and mystery and wonder?

You bet, Doc.27 Its significance lies in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit; to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful — that which is full of wonder. For a few moments, we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.28

What is the special obligation of a writer in this astonishing, but desperately wounded world?

I believe that words count, that writing matters, that poems, essays, and novels — in the long run — make a difference.29 The writer’s job is to write, and write the truth30 — especially unpopular truth. Especially truth that offends the powerful, the rich, the well-established.31 But he also has the moral obligation to get down in the dust and the sweat and lend not only his name but his voice and body to the tiresome contest. How far can you go in objectivity, in temporizing, in fence-straddling, before it becomes plain moral cowardice?32 “It is always the writer’s duty,” Samuel Johnson said, “to make the world better.”

But what is your vision of a better world? It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of business-as-usual. The financial power of the fossil fuel industry has really done a job on our democracy. But maybe that doesn’t matter; Plato didn’t think much of democracies anyway. Democracies always turn into plutocracies, the rule of the rich, he said, because rich people can buy votes. And plutocracies always turn into anarchies, because the people won’t stand for injustice forever. So that’s the vision we’re left with? Anarchy?

Anarchy is democracy taken seriously. An anarchist community would consist of a voluntary association of free and independent families, self-reliant, and self-supporting but bound by kinship ties and a tradition of mutual aid.33

I just don’t know how to get there. It’s hard for activists to find a focus these days. Already the world is knocked off kilter – big storms, rising water, starving people on the move. What kept you going? What powered your steadfast efforts to defend the land?

Equal parts anger and love.34

But how did you keep from falling into utter despair?

Thoreau said, “Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything.” That makes sense.35 Where there is no joy, there can be no courage, and without courage all other virtues are useless.36 One single act of defiance against power, against the State that seems omnipotent but is not, transforms and transfigures the human personality.37 The search for transcendence and integrity and truth goes on.38 Best to march forth boldly, with or without life jackets, keep your matches dry and pray for the best.39

I don’t know where you are now, Edward Abbey. But I hope that maybe some of us citizens (of the USA, of the planet) might find you in ourselves — the bravura, the common sense, the ferocious truth, the anger, and the love that will empower us to save your unpleasant solpugids 40 and your slickrock — and maybe even save our own sorry skins. All the mining and drilling, the burning, burning, the thunder and the roar — all the oily gases, and now the melting planet with its crazy storms — all the dying, dear god, the unnamed creatures, the singing frogs, the children of the future, whose small voices cannot call out to us. It’s moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale. We can’t allow it. From your place in the stony cycles of the planet, what is your advice to us?

It’s time to get fucking back to work.41

Copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Dean Moore, from Great Tide Rising. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

  1. All of the sentences herein attributed to Edward Abbey are his alone, gleaned from his books and letters, although not all the words in his sentences are herein. That is, I have not changed any words, but I have left some out if the omission doesn’t change the meaning. Many of the sentences are wildly out of context, but they seem to make good sense in their new combination, so I think that’s okay. I trust that Ed will want to share them, to “let himself be used as the voice for those who share his view of earthly affairs, his emotions and discoveries, aspirations and hopes” (One Life at a Time, Please, p. 163).
  2. Down the River, p. 93.
  3. Down the River, p. 34.
  4. Desert Solitaire, p. 155.
  5. Down the River, p. 105.
  6. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 177.
  7. Down the River, p. 57.
  8. Desert Solitaire, p. xiii.
  9. Letter to George Sessions, August 30, 1979.
  10. Desert Solitaire, p. 21.
  11. Desert Solitaire, p. 34.
  12. Down the River, p. 119.
  13. Letter to George Sessions, August 30, 1979.
  14. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 30.
  15. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 31.
  16. Down the River, p. 4.
  17. The Monkey Wrench Gang, p. 58.
  18. The Monkey Wrench Gang, p. 101.
  19. The Monkey Wrench Gang, p. 77.
  20. Down the River, p. 103.
  21. Down the River, p. 109.
  22. Letter to Eugene Hargrove, November 3, 1982.
  23. Letter to George Sessions, August 30, 1979.
  24. Down the River, p. 9.
  25. Desert Solitaire, p. 167.
  26. Down the River, p. 120.
  27. The Monkey Wrench Gang, p. 179.
  28. Desert Solitaire, pp. 36-37.
  29. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 162.
  30. Letter to Barry Lopez, June 14, 1987.
  31. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 163.
  32. Letter to Barry Lopez, June 14, 1987.
  33. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 26.
  34. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 176.
  35. Down the River, p. 3.
  36. Desert Solitaire, p. 125.
  37. Down the River, p. 108.
  38. One Life at a Time, Please, p. 216.
  39. Desert Solitaire, p. 240.
  40. “The Great American Desert,” the Journey Home.
  41. The Monkey Wrench Gang, p. 123.
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