Both of these books came out within 12 months of each other and were widely regarded as profound commentaries on our current environmental and political crises––while still offering a measured dose of hope for the road ahead.
But I couldn't help but notice that both of these books from fingers-on-the-pulse thinkers, included eco-sabotage as core plot points.
For Overstory, the plot hinges on five interwoven tales of trees, their persistence across human timespans, their ability to recover and renew, and their ability to reconnect us to the longer arc of organic life on earth.
And...a small group of ragtag misfits get so overwhelmed by the futility of polite environmental activism, so despondent over the relentless clear cuts and industrial pollution that they take to burning down luxury resorts rather than joining one more futile march in DC. (someone dies, someone goes to prison, not great outcomes all round).
For Ministry for the Future (the title speaks to an imagined branch of the UN situated in Switzerland, dedicated to averting the climate catastrophe) there's all sorts of policy talk and nerdy solutions like a blockchain carbon coin that eventually supplants fiat currencies and helps us abandon petro-economics.
But...the real needle mover, the intervention that actually changes behavior in this story is a ruthlessly effective eco-terrorist group dubbed the Children of Kali.
Radicalized by a mass casualty heat event in India (eerily like the one they're having this year), the Children of Kali knock so many Lear jets out of the sky that the Davos crowd grows too scared to use them anymore, and they sink so many container ships that companies switch to giant sailing barges.
The plot twist by the end is that the Children of Kali and the Ministry for the Future are actually in cahoots, and that the eco-terrorists function as a sort of black-ops arm of the UN Ministry. They can circumvent politics and diplomacy, can call bullshit on cynical stalling tactics, and make those most responsible for the death of the planet feel their own mortality for a change.
Just by themselves or taken together, those two books showcasing violent protest should mark a sea change in sentiment. We should note this moment.
Because the subtext, the story between the lines, is that we're now firmly past the point where reasonable, progressive, civic interventions are going to be remotely adequate to get us out of the fix we're in. Even for the best and brightest thinkers among us.
Then a couple of weeks ago two more things happened: the New York Times published an extended bit on the Earth Liberation Front, a 1990's era eco activist group, and Kim Robinson gave an unfiltered talk at Stanford, updating his position since his book came out.
Things are heating up some more.
The Times piece recounted the tale of ELF, one of the more savvy and successful eco-activist groups in history. Our paths crossed with them more than once, both in the Eugene permaculture/activist scene and then again back home in Colorado in the mid 90's.
They operated with distinct anonymous cells and took pains (decades ago!) to evade facial ID with reverse camo face paint to blur features, and prosthetic noses and ears to avoid positive ID. They targeted logging companies who were clearcutting old growth in the Cascades, and most famously, burned down a luxury lodge on Vail Mountain (just over the pass where we used to guide in the backcountry––had to rearrange a trip where we going to use that lodge as a way station).
Poking the big bad bear of Vail Resorts, and threatening true wealth and power (as opposed to regional skirmishes over logging) was enough to put a giant "terrorist" target on their backs and launch one of the larger FBI domestic intelligence ops to date. TL;DR shut down, leaders imprisoned, neutralized.
The exact opposite happened to Kim Stanley Robinson's fictional Children of Kali. In perhaps the most implausible plot line in his entire book, they managed to literally get away with murder at a sustained and global scale, and weren't "smoked out of their holes" as GWB would've suggested. #torabora
Apparently, this had left Robinson unresolved too, and just this past week he gave a frank update on the Stanford campus.
Since his book had come out in 2020, it had rapidly made the rounds of policy makers and pundits worldwide and earned the author a backstage pass to COP26 in Glasgow.
His recent talk was kind of an update of his last whirlwind couple of years, assessment of what trends are unfolding in which directions, and his clearer picture after peaking behind the curtain of global climate politics.
Three key takeaways:
Which when you combine with that Times piece on the Earth Liberation Front, brings us almost full circle to the origins of life-imitating-art with Ed Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang. (which also got its start on the Stanford campus, but we’ll come back to that in a sec).
Abbey's book was an inspired irascible paean to America's Desert Southwest (telling the tale of a bunch of misfits romping around in the same wilderness where we run our canyons course every October.
But in his early rebellion against the encroaching strip-mall-nullification of wild places in the American West, Abbey seeded something.
(The name of the gang was the Monkeywrench Gang, after all).
They disabled bulldozers and cement trucks, cranes and billboards––any engine of progress and destruction they could find in the dead of night. With one tall tale of the American West, Abbey made it possible to conceive of large scale tactical resistance to relentless American Progress.
But the monkeywrench that made them legends was a 1000 lb fertilizer bomb loaded onto a Lake Powell houseboat. In the grand finale of the book, the Gang scuttled that lumbering torpedo straight into Glen Canyon Dam. The mighty Colorado was then free again to plunge down its old riverbed to the Sea of Cortez. The way it always had. The way it was always supposed to. (Lake Powell, as of this week is teetering on the brink of "dead pool" status, where it can no longer create electric power or even flow downstream on its own juice).
Now that book, as original as it was, didn't come from nowhere.
In fact, it came from Pulitzer winner Wallace Stegner's writing fellowship at Stanford. Ed Abbey, along with ecologist and poet Wendell Berry, New Western scribe Larry McMurtry, and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey all got shot out of that program and across the pages and minds of America.
Stegner himself was a fierce advocate and defender of wild places and was instrumental in the passage of the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964.
So for Kim Stanley Robinson to pull up last week on that same campus and give voice to an updated vision and fresh concerns feels strangely, deeply appropriate.
But my oh my, how things have changed since the late 1950's when Abbey concluded it was all going to hell. We can look back on those sweet, innocent Eisenhower days and marvel at the Garden of Eden we once had!
So where does this leave us?
Edging ever closer to the time when Sins of Omission become Sins of Commission. What I ought to have done but left undone, becomes as big a deal as that which I did, but probably shouldn't have.
Now the super spooky thing, as we have seen with everything from the Capital Riot on the right, to the Seattle antifa occupations on the left, is that all sorts of folks are concluding that violent resistance is the only way to level the scorecard these days.
And that doesn't bode well for the ongoing stability of civil society.
But if I had to lay my cards down, if I was going to step outside the lines of "keep your head down and vote for the change you believe in" it would be for the old growth trees and watersheds of Turtle Island (North America).
In the same way you can't unfuck someone (heed this simple truth, poly-people!), you can't unfuck an ecosystem that took centuries to generate after you've clearcut it to the ground. Four leggeds, two leggeds, winged and finned, roots and shoots, and mycelial webs. We can't 3D print that shit, now, or ever.
A well known nature writer, Derrick Jensen (riffing on Abbey), put it this way “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though I'm not sure that's right.”
I'm increasingly less sure myself.
Today, I grabbed a mug of coffee and started writing.
Well, tomorrow is another day.
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