On Direct Action

Each of us has to define and attend to our own ethics as we decide how to defend the Earth.

IN A RECENT New Scientist magazine, Swedish professor of ecology Andreas Malm was interviewed about his thoughts concerning waging battle on behalf of the environment in view of the corporate hierarchy’s chilly — and often obstructionist — response to calls for action on global warming. The title of his latest book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to fight in a world on fire, in which he makes the case for moving beyond peaceful protest in order to spur climate action, invigorated an immediate reaction in my own mind. Over fifty years ago, a tiny coterie of us were doing our best to forestall continued construction of coal-fired power plants in the North American Southwest. And I found myself contemplating not-so-peaceful actions myself.

Peabody Coal’s Black Mesa coal mine in northern Arizona (pictured) was situated on a landform that remains deeply sacred to the Hopi and Navajo. The mine was part of the Central Arizona Project, which also involved construction of a coal slurry pipeline, a new railroad, an enormous generating station, and more. Photo by Doc Searls.

Because of the legal shenanigans of a Utah-based lawyer named John Boyden, Peabody Coal constructed a pipeline that ran 273 miles from an enormous strip-mine located on Black Mesa in northern Arizona to the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nevada. Water was to be pumped from the pristine Pleistocene aquifer beneath Black Mesa at two thousand gallons per minute, and used to slurry crushed coal through the pipeline to the power plant. Boyden had negotiated a contract between the Hopi Tribal Council that had hired him, and the Peabody Coal Co. of East Saint Louis for whom he worked on the sly. He received at least a million dollars for serving two disparate entities.

The Black Mesa mine was situated on a landform that remains deeply sacred to both traditional Hopi and Navajo. The water from the aquifer feeds springs in the Hopi villages, and also wells that provide water to Navajo Indians living in the region around Black Mesa, desert country by any standard. In other words, this was an environmental debacle of magnitude. Coal was to be strip-mined from a sacred landform and water was to be sucked from a life-sustaining aquifer. To complete the fiasco, more coal would be shipped on a new railroad from the strip-mine to the enormous Navajo Generating Station under construction on the shores of Lake Powell, which straddles Utah and Arizona. The Mohave and Lake Powell power plants would contribute to an already burgeoning amount of carbon dioxide, sulfur, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter into the atmosphere. On top of that, power lines were to be constructed across one of the most beautiful landscapes in America. About 25 percent of the electricity generated by the new Navajo Generating Station was to be used to pump water from the Colorado River through a concrete lined ditch into the Central Valleys of Arizona, ostensibly to serve agriculturalists. (In the end, the water was used primarily by developers to result in the metastasis of both Phoenix and Tucson as they spread across the fragile landscape of the Sonoran Desert.)

This entire undertaking, known as the Central Arizona Project, involved every element of environmental devastation, not the least of which was irreparable damage to two Native American communities and their cultural traditions . Unfortunately, it all came to fruition.

Back when the project was still under development, I travelled along many miles of that coal-slurry pipeline considering wreaking some form of explosive mayhem to shut it down. I thought about it but didn’t do it. Why? Because I realized that I’d certainly get caught and end up in prison for many years, and that wasn’t where I wanted to spend my life. At least that was part of my reasoning. Another was that I detest violence, even against inanimate objects like a pipeline. Also, the thought of possibly causing harm to a fellow human is abhorrent to me. I imagined electricity suddenly going off in a hospital in Las Vegas causing death on operating tables. Thus, I abandoned any notion of blowing up that pipeline or any others.

I have to say that I was not alone all those years ago in trying to defend habitat against invasion by corporate extractors. My late best friend Edward Abbey started his defense of habitat earlier than I, but he was nine years older. Another who comes to mind is the late great Dave Brower, who helped us considerably as we fought to save the Southwest from coal-fired power plants. In 1972, Dave and I were invited to visit the Four Corners Power Plant near Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico. Shortly after we were led into the computer room wherein monstrous computers tended to the digitized operation of the power plant, Dave turned to me and said loudly, “Hey Loeffler — did you bring the satchel charge?” He was joking, of course, but we were immediately escorted off of the premises. (Dave Brower would later go on to found Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal.)

THE AFOREMENTIONED ADREAS MALM advocates sabotage in defense against climate change. I haven’t read his book, and chances are good that I won’t. Malm has apparently spiced up his Marxist leanings by including an environmental imperative.

But even though I don’t agree with him, I understand the instinct. Some decades ago, someone coined the term ‘ecotage,’ which means to commit sabotage for ecological reasons. Thereafter, the term ‘ecoterrorism’ was — I believe erroneously — defined as the practice of committing sabotage to thwart environmental damage committed by extractors of natural resources. When I consider ecoterrorism, I immediately think of the true ecoterrorists, namely extractors, developers, and their men and women in government who are causing mayhem against the natural environment. They are terrorizing habitat and its inhabitants. However, those who defend habitat are the ones who get arrested while those who destroy it are often protected by legislation — legislation that disregards the laws and principles of Nature. Whose laws do you or I abide by?

Each of us has to define and attend to our personal ethical standards. As Ed Abbey said, “Freedom begins between the ears.” I deeply admire Mahatma Gandhi who greatly inspired non-violent civil disobedience — and who was assassinated for his efforts the year I turned 12 years old. I also greatly admire the many Native Americans who recently defended sacred land against yet another pipeline at Standing Rock, also peacefully. My heart went out to them, and I laud their courage and persistence. They stood it down and did not use violence. They practiced civil disobedience in the face of legislation that runs counter to Nature’s principles, and they won.

Here we are on this tiny planet Earth, less than 8,000 miles in diameter, which, in partnership with the Sun, spawned us and every other form of life that has ever lived here over the last 3.8 billion years or so. And with life came cognition and now consciousness. We may not be the only truly conscious species, but we’re the only one that has gravely misused this fantastic gift of consciousness. It’s never too late for any of us to use our consciousness with imagination and enthusiasm to become activists in behalf of Earth. If enough of us get into the act, we can turn around the death-spawn of our own invention.

However you choose to turn it around, JUST DO IT.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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