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Laundra - Decentralization in Radical Environmentalism: Earth Firsters!

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									Abstract Decentralization in Radical Environmentalism Today: Exploring the Earth First! Collective This paper examines the role of decentralized leadership within the radical environmental movement today. Particularly, the organizational strengths and liabilities of modern grassroots environmental groups that lack traditional hierarchical bureaucratic structures to guide their campaigns are explored. As a case study, the decentralized organizational structure of Earth First! is examined in terms of its ability to disseminate information to its membership, to publish its journal, to form alliances, to engage in both fundraising and direct action campaigns, and to foster a sense of community. Dr. Ken Laundra Department of Sociology Michigan State University 203 Berkey Hall East Lansing, MI 48824 Phone: 435-327-0829

Decentralization in Radical Environmentalism Today: Exploring the Earth First! Collective

Introduction Earth First! has a membership but no members. It has leadership but nobody is in charge. It has a set of guiding principles but no goals. Earth First! is organized but it is not an organization. These claims seem contradictory, and yet they make perfect sense within the rather unique structure of Earth First! environmentalism, a structure that is one of the movement’s most “radical” features. In order to escape the bureaucratic confines of other environmental groups, to allow for more effective coalition building, and as a defense tactic to ward off eager predators, Earth First! has employed a non-traditional organizational philosophy as a means to an end, by any means necessary. The organizational history of Earth First! began in 1979 as a reaction to what was considered by many environmentalist to be a lack of action; specifically, that environmental campaigns of the day were not up to scratch, deficient in direct action and too often besieged by eco-political gerrymandering, a diffusion of interests, and legal quicksand (Earth First! 2006a; Scarce 2006). This frustration led some like Dave Forman, formerly with the New Mexico Wilderness Society, and Mike Roselle of the Wyoming Wilderness Society to advance the idea that a special action arm of the movement was needed. They envisioned a group that was free to take action without the bureaucratic constraints that stifled so many previous efforts to halt developmental projects that threatened the natural environment (Davis 1991; Forman 1991). Further inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the discovery of toxic contamination in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York in 1978, Edward Abbey’s The


Monkeywrench Gang (Abbey 1975), and the writings of Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, among others, a small group of environmental activists emerged to reshape the organizational structure of environmentalism toward less bureaucracy and more direct, non-violent action (Forman and Haywood 1993; Wall 2002; Zakin 2002). It should also be noted that throughout the evolution of the Earth First! movement has been a growing amalgamation with the concept of “deep ecology,” which is a biocentric environmental ethic first proposed by Arne Naess and later developed by George Sessions and Bill Devall (Bradford 1989; Somma 2006; Zimmerman 1997). Deep ecology is founded in the principles of interconnectedness, a rejection of human exemptionalism, and a call to action (Foundation for Deep Ecology 2006). This ecological paradigm contrasts traditionally anthropocentric views of the environment and challenges the assumption that human needs and development take priority over the interests of other life forms. The Earth First! slogan, “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth,” reflects the ecological paradigm shift of the movement that advocates for the use of civil disobedience to thwart development projects that endanger natural habitats. The iconoclastic image of a stone hammer and monkey wrench represent this call to action and would later become emblematic of “radical” environmentalism today along with other groups like The Sea Shepherd Society, the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Today, these organizations have replaced their notorious predecessor Greenpeace as the most “dangerous” radical organization, which is seen by some to have been ultimately faded by burdensome bureaucracy and a focus on political campaigning and fundraising over direct action (Earth First! 2006a; Scarce 2006). In actuality, the


formation of Earth First! is not unlike the action-oriented emphasis of Greenpeace, and models various other examples of grassroots environmental organizations which are typically fractioned and local, smaller in scale, and rely more heavily on volunteerism for leadership than more mainstream environmental groups such as The Wilderness Society or The Sierra Club (Dunlap and Mertig 1992; Hannigan 1995 ). What distinguishes Earth First! from its grassroots predecessors is, perhaps, its ability to resist co-option by either mainstream environmental groups or other corporate or political interests that would serve to water down the direct action emphasis in favor of image control or fundraising. Here, Earth First! has been successful in maintaining direct action as a priority while membership continues to grow globally. Where other environmental organizations have been burdened by this kind of growth and co-option, Earth First! remains largely independent of alliances that, well-intentioned or not, may have leveled direct action with the weight of bureaucracy, litigation, and a diffusion of interests. How have they managed to maintain their action-oriented priority in the face of normal organizational evolution, a fate that awaits most other grassroots groups who grow over time? The answer is that in some ways they haven’t. Yet, despite becoming more organizationally complex and affiliated, Earth First! has exercised a creative flexibility in managing itself, embedding a philosophy of decentralization throughout its various campaigns of conservationism.

A Collective Not an Organization Earth First! is best known for direct action campaigns such as tree sittings, tree spiking, blockades, industrial sabotage, protesting, and other public acts of defiance against development that endangers the natural environment (Forman 1991; Molland


2006; Wall 2002) . These acts are sometimes referred to as “eco-terrorism,” “ecotage,” or “monkeywrenching” (Arnold 1997; Forman 1991; Forman and Haywood 1993) and are the most sensationalized, politically charged events that have given Earth First! its longstanding notoriety as a “radical” environmental group. Earth First! makes no apologies for its association with these forms of direct action and, in fact, relies on the media’s coverage of these events to bring greater political attention to the activities of developers that threaten natural habitats. However, other efforts that focus on fundraising, coalition building, letter-writing campaigns, litigation, education and the establishment of the Earth First! Journal are probably more effective measures of global mobilization that receive far less media attention. Earth First! is funded entirely by volunteer efforts and through private contributions funneled through the Earth First! Direct Action Fund. Corporate or political donations are not accepted and Earth First! does not file as a nonprofit entity with the federal government, all in an effort to insure independence from government regulation (Earth First! 2006b). Coalition building is done largely through information exchanges provided by the worldwide website and the official journal (both printed and web-based version) (Earth First! 2006a). Announcements regarding both recent and upcoming events are posted, including those of like-minded environmental organizations, to promote attendance, awareness and action. This is also the primary forum for encouraging letter-writing campaigns and for documenting outcomes of prior activities, including the status of litigation regarding either pending lawsuits or about those who have been criminally charged. Other information exchanges take place more informally through personal websites or blogs, such as a MySpace account, that are often tied to


local Earth First! groups to allow for more specific details about local fights. Face-toface meetings are also held regularly, such as the annual international Round River Rendevous where organizers meet to form coalitions and to plan future events. Regional and local meetings are also held regularly, as well as more sporadic and informal gatherings in local communities (Earth First! 2006c). Hence, through the popular Earth First! Journal, and aided immensely by the internet, the movement is able to reaffirm its mission and philosophy for newcomers, while simultaneously publicizing current events of international, regional and local interest for those seeking to participate, many of whom establish their own forums for disseminating critical information for locally specific action. Because the actual planning and implementation of covert direct action campaigns takes place informally and face-to-face in small factions of the concerned citizenry, the information provided publicly via the internet and journal does not seriously threaten the success of these campaigns. It is only provided as a guide or template for those wishing to pursue their own direct action agendas. In this way, and because Earth First! has no formal leadership structure to finger in the event of criminal activity done in the name of Earth First!, it remains, for the most part, legally free from culpability. As stated on the worldwide website: Earth First! is a priority, not an organization. The only "leaders" are those temporarily working the hardest and taking the most risks. New ideas, strategies and crucial initiative come from individuals, and all decisions are made within affinity groups based on preferred tactics. EF! is as much an extended family as an environmental movement, developing the integrity and skills for a new/old way of living with the land. Our actions are tied to Deep Ecology, the spiritual and visceral recognition of the intrinsic, sacred value of every living thing (Earth First! 2006a). Strategically, Earth First! has positioned itself as more of a coalition of shared interests rather than as an organizational entity. They have no official members. By


organizing itself as a community, with the aid of electronic media and global networking via the internet, they are able to dodge certain organizational constraints that have irked social theorists for a long time.

Theoretical Roots Weber was one of the first to argue that bureaucratic organization of activity was characteristic of the modern era, although not particular to capitalism. For Weber, largescale enterprises in the political, economic and administrative sectors of society would necessarily produce an excessive managerial structure in its quest to dominate nature through the large-scale development of societies. A hierarchical structure with specific positions of leadership and impersonal rules of engagement are seen as the rational response to organizational needs as the organization swells to meet the larger and larger demands of growth. Because these large-scale enterprises require so many different types of specialized labor, these activities would need to be delineated through a bureaucratic system that formed smaller spheres of activity to be managed jurisdictionally. Although Weber acknowledged that bureaucratic structures of this sort might hinder an organization’s ability to be flexible, and that a culture of depersonalized, corporate relationships would ensue; he argued that this form of organization was rational and necessary in the modern era nonetheless (Weber 2006). Similarly, Marx pointed to the growth machine of capitalism as necessarily leading to depersonalized labor structures, resulting in an entire class of alienated labor. Marx describes alienation in an objective, structural sense, but also as leading to a more personal, psychological state of meaninglessness related to one’s working conditions. As working conditions become increasingly controlled through bureaucratic management,


workers will be less able to act freely and creatively, heightening a sense of powerlessness. Coupled with increased restriction on the labor itself, through greater monotony and routinization of action, workers ultimately find themselves stuck in an unsatisfying work experience, organizationally productive but psychologically meaningless (Marx 2006). For these theorists, depersonalization was the end product of systemic, organizational growth. The needs of the organization require a certain psychological sacrifice, a sacrifice of humanity. That is, in order to be successful, an organization must forego individual concerns for the larger good. To be successful, an organization must be efficient in its operations, fostering productivity by reducing the superfluous and by dividing labor into more routine activities. This success comes at a cost, however; the cost of dehumanizing the work experience, as workers find less personal satisfaction in their tasks and fewer intimate contacts with other workers. Within the purview of mobilization theory, the advantages and disadvantages associated with “participatory democracy” have been discussed for decades (MacPherson 1977; Pateman 1970; Poletta 2002; Rothschild-Whitt 1979; Rothschild and Whitt 1986). Viewing citizen participation as the central condition of effective political practice, this body of literature argues that only through direct participation in the decision-making process can social and economic inequalities be leveled. Only when citizens are directly involved in the political process, not through proxy by elected representatives, can real awareness of social and political problems be understood and properly addressed. Political institutions that represent their constituency cannot replace the regular dialogue among citizens about important social issues and must include them in the decision-


making process. Through participation the public is more keenly educated and social consciousness is raised. Taking these ideas further, Vitale (2006) makes the point that, while the rights of participation are important, social, economic, cultural and environmental rights are also central for a truly democratic process and that, moreover, these rights require institutional and legal support for any longstanding tradition of participatory democracy to be established. Without the institutionalization of direct participation, democratic engagement will likely fall to the indirect interests of politicsas-usual. The charge of participatory democracy, that institutionalized freedom to participate is essential for the evolution of any social movement, seems quite central to the mission of many grassroots environmental groups, including Earth First! For these movements, local and short-term projects are more often initiated by a band of energized participants, drawing upon resources provided by the larger established group or coalition. In fact, grassroots environmentalism of often characterized by volunteerism and a resistence to authoritative, hierarchical organization. By rejecting the notion of membership and organizational hierarchy, Earth First! is arguably the hilt of participatory democracy. In terms of an institutionalized bureaucracy, Earth First! strives merely to provide resources to those with like-minded objectives and does not regularly engage in any kind of structured supervision of activities that might alienate participants from the decision-making process or the action itself. Still, all activity requires some form of organization and Earth First! has pragmatically applied structure where necessary, particularly where more traditional means of environmentalism are employed.


Organizing Earth First!ers In some ways Earth First! does resemble a more traditional organization and struggles with many of the same organizational pressures. For example, closer inspection reveals that Earth First! relies heavily on its publication, the Earth First! Journal, to disseminate information regarding meetings, to describe strategies for action, and to discuss current events and a wide range of opinions. Its dependence on this organizational tool results in demands for editors (known as the “editorial collective”) and money through fundraising to continue the bi-monthly subscriptions. A home office for the journal is required and a small staff must be kept to ensure ongoing publication. Permanent staff is also necessary to organize and maintain the Direct Action Fund that is used to finance various events internationally. Hence, some bureaucratic pressure falls upon the movement and, given the transient nature of volunteerism, Earth First! regularly struggles to maintain momentum in its fight to protect the environment (Earth First! 2006d; 2006e; 2004f). Still, bureaucratic direction seems to focus on the provision of informational resources, networking opportunities, and funding, and not on regular supervision of those involved in direct action or other public events. Of course, the ability to communicate using the internet, to form an extended community in cyberspace, has been tremendously important for the movement, a technological tool that prior environmental groups were unable to use or did not use effectively. How they employ this technology is somewhat novel, however. Rather than establishing a primary website as a central hub for information, with related links and membership forms, Earth First! has two very simple, yet separate websites to visit. One is the portal to the Earth First! Journal (, where back issues and


subscriptions are available. Visitors access this site primarily to read articles written by other Earth First!ers and to learn where local action is taking place around the world. The other site is titled, “Earth First! Worldwide” ( and provides very little information other than the mission statement and how to form your own local group. Those seeking physical support or financing for a local action won’t find any official means of applying and are merely encouraged to organize themselves. Unlike other environmental organizations, then, Earth First! rejects any claim to central authority, either in cyberspace or in other places. Perhaps one good example of this decentralized strategy is the creation of what many claim is the modern day, extended arm of Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) (Molland 2006; Scarce 2006). Today’s Earth First! remains loyal to its principles of deep ecology and direct action but also struggles to achieve a certain degree of legitimacy as a mainstream political force, largely because they have no membership (Molland 2006; Scarce 2006). One result of increased attention to politicking within the movement has been sharing the responsibility of direct action with local efforts which are more likely to claim their allegiance with ELF or ALF than with Earth First!, deflecting blame and attention away from Earth First! as the single greatest radical environmental threat globally. Even though there is little distinction among Earth First!ers, ELF and ALF on the web or in discussion groups, this perceived distinction is important nonetheless. The belief that Earth First! has passed the criminal torch to other groups has led to greater legitimization of Earth First! as a political entity, not unlike the political evolution of Greenpeace, its radical predecessor. Impressively,


Earth First! is able to create this distinction by not distinguishing itself, because Earth First! is organized more organically as a collective, not an institution.

The Humanity of Earth First! For a grassroots movement like Earth First!, the costs of traditional bureaucracy are too great to bear. As evidenced in their organizational philosophy, Earth First! favors the notion of an environmental community versus an environmental organization per se. By emphasizing the idea that Earth First! is both a community and a movement and not strictly a group or organization (at least not in the traditional sense), they have successfully fashioned themselves into an effective mobilizing force that has contributed greatly to global environmental awareness. More specifically, they have been able to establish ongoing coalitions with competing environmental organizations (Walton and Widay 2006) without being co-opted by them and have continued a tradition of direct action where other grassroots organizations of their size have evolved toward a greater emphasis on political lobbying, litigation and fundraising campaigns. Their rather unique ability to remain a physically present force in local environmental battles is, at least in part, due to a resilient mission statement that grounds itself in the belief that Earth First! is an eclectic movement of shared concerns, grounded in the principles of deep ecology, as opposed to a discrete group with specific goals tied to certain established institutional interests. This organizational strategy has allowed for a good deal of flexibility and legal freedom to pursue a wide range of environmental threats around the world as local citizens voice their shared concerns around the central ideology of being “Earth First!ers,” rather than being members of Earth First! In this way also, those who identify themselves as an Earth First!er inherit a sense of community, a visceral tie to the larger


movement of which they belong to, despite the fact that very little physical contact takes place among those who belong. Participants who gather for Earth First! events are typically members of other more traditional groups but come together for local causes under an earth-friendly banner as Earth First!ers. The unique institutional structure allows anyone to participate at any time without bureaucratic constraint.

Collective Voices Interviews with Earth First!ers involved on different levels of the campaign is one way to evaluate the level and form of bureaucracy that truly exists. Speaking directly with Earth First!ers proves difficult, however, partly because the movement has no organizational hierarchy to locate for an interview, and because those involved do not necessarily feel they have the authority or knowledge to speak on behalf of such a diverse set of interests and motivations. For the few that do respond to questioning regarding the organizational structure of Earth First!, however, their comments are consistent with the notion that decentralization is both a highlight and hindrance of Earth First! One long term editor of the Earth First! Journal explains that, while the structure of the journal is philosophically non-hierarchical, there is a degree of authority that exists between long term editors and short term editors who need some initial guidance in the publishing operation itself. He admits that high staff turnover can be troublesome in terms of journal publication deadlines and other monthly duties, but also acknowledges that the regular influx of new staff brings fresh ideas and new perspectives that can reinvigorate the cause and soften any authoritative structures that may have developed unintentionally over time among long term staff. This editor is also concerned about unintentional, gender status


that he feels may exist at the journal, being the sole male editor overseeing all others. He expresses his sensitivity to this potential problem of authority in this way, “I’m referring to the concerns about hierarchy that inevitably arise when the only long-termer (who also happens to have been socialized as male) is teaching (female and genderqueer) short-termers how to do things, orienting them to the process and presiding over much of the production in a de facto sense. Having a female long-termer (as is now the case) should help to defuse this dynamic, but it’s still something I’m wary of as I now teach her more about the process. It’s far from ideal when male privilege intersects with privilege of knowledge/experience, and it’s something I’ve tried to be as conscious of as possible. New short-termers and long-termers have also brought a deeper understanding of and commitment to healthy, non-hierarchical communication and action to the Journal. Passive-aggressive modes of communication, manipulative behavior, privilege based on knowledge or experience, and patriarchal/heterosexist behavior that may have gone unchallenged before are now being called out on a regular basis. And a community process for dealing with oppressive and/or abusive behavior is being initiated. This is occurring not only within the Earth First! Journal, but also within Tucson’s radical community as a whole”(Anonymous 2007a). From an outsider’s perspective, it would be easy to assume that the Earth First! Journal provides direction and leadership for the movement. This is not the case, however, as the journal’s organizational structure is only relevant to the activities of publication. While it does serve as a conduit of information for Earth First!ers, it is not responsible for providing any marching orders. Rather, the movement’s direction, including direction for the journal, is established through annual meetings (both regional and local) where Earth First!ers gather to discuss their particular agendas within the larger movement as egalitarian equals. Through these free-flowing discussions, a short term agenda is developed for local groups to strategize around independently. For event organizers and the random environmentalist who wishes to participate locally, the larger Earth First! organizational umbrella seems inexplicable, which is viewed as both a strength and weakness. Aside from the Earth First! Journal, in terms of


organizing the events themselves, when asked about problems associated with the decentralized philosophy of Earth First!, one event organizer states, “A big challenge has been being associated with past actions and other work that had little support in this region, and having to prove myself to the people here even if I (and the people I work with) had nothing to do with past events. To the people here, we are synonymous with past groups simply because we work on the same issues and we’re outsiders. Another challenge is sometimes there’s too much focus on direct action, and energy is put into actions that are not constructive. Direct action can be effective if there is support for it and if there are other tactics being taken at the same time, or that had been taken. This isn’t always the case with Earth First!” (Anonymous 2007b). Those more loosely affiliated with Earth First!, such as the more nomadic environmentalists that assist event organizers at local fights with developers, or local residents who join up temporarily out of NIMBYistic (“Not In My Back Yard”) intentions claim that, while they appreciate the freedom they are given to voice their concerns, or to take specific action, they also encounter a degree of discontinuity and confusion among those who gather for such an event. One participant explained his brief encounter with Earth First! in this way: “We really didn’t know what to expect, or even what to do exactly when we arrived. There were people who seemed to know what they were doing so we asked how we could help. Pretty soon we could see what needed to be done and we did it. It wasn’t long before people were asking us what they could do! It was a beautiful thing really (Anonymous 2007c).” Commentary from Earth First!ers seems to confirm that Earth First! remains loyal to its tradition of limited, decentralized bureaucracy. Those bureaucratic structures that do exist have been established as a resource for participants to draw from but not to direct them in any specific way. While this organizational style can frustrate those involved on occasion, it seems to be a necessary condition for remaining philosophically true to the


mission of Earth First! and seems to offer participants greater autonomy and the tribal affinity that comes from a shared sense of purpose. Earth’s Action Alliance Ultimately, Earth First! remains a viable direct action campaign because of a philosophy of decentralized organization, founded in principles of deep ecology rather than any traditional paradigm of organizational hierarchy, which allows participation to flow across other, more traditional groups but which also establishes a sense of community through deliberate information sharing. As other grassroots movements tend to evolve out of direct action campaigns and into political lobbying and litigation as their emphasis, Earth First! continues to mobilize direct action campaigns as their primary means of environmental protection. Of course, politicking, fundraising and other more mainstream means of environmental awareness are employed, but Earth First! remains committed to direct action in the form of protest and monkeywrenching through a looseknit but psychologically bound community of local groups, including their sister organizations ELF and ALF, synthesized into international efforts to raise humanity’s environmental consciousness. This organizational style can be likened to ancestral bureaucracy, such as the Native American tradition of bands, tribes and nation. In a similar style, Earth First!ers establish locally autonomous bands of active citizen groups to deal with immediate concerns, form coalitional tribes on a regional level to defend one another, and gather as a nation during annual events to discuss overarching goals and common dreams, and to celebrate both their diversity and likeness. In a very real sense, Earth First! is a modern day electronic tribe, one that defies traditional organizational designs but one that is uniquely robust in its ability to grow outside the mainstream


environmental agenda. Benefiting from this architecture are those who participate, who feel a greater sense of belonging to a cause rather than to just another environmental group. The emphasis on communication over supervision, and a de-emphasis on organizational hierarchy is largely responsible for fostering both local autonomy and global affinity among Earth First!ers. Many of us are sympathetic to environmentalism, but often our devotion to the cause is diminished by the organizations we support that, over time, often re-direct their efforts toward the mundane, seemingly artificial world of politics and lobbying. We can send our $10 checks to the Sierra Club but not feel entirely secure in how that donation is spent or how effective it is in changing policy or increasing awareness. Or, we can participate in local events which require our presence and our voices and, when tied to a global network of like-minded individuals, can create a tremendous feeling of influence. The impact feels more real. Moreover, the visceral experience of direct action coupled with a tribal affection across the planet (cleverly nurtured in part by the relatively newfound technology of a broadband internet) seems to offer greater hope for the kind of drastic changes in policy necessary to sustain a habitable environment in the future. What Earth First! suffers in terms of organizational deficiencies that can impede its growth and objectives, it balances with a clever resistance to the more typical hierarchies that can often diminish the will of members of mainstream environmental groups. In a sense, by rejecting the mainstream organizational archetype, Earth First! extends it membership to everyone with the promise of a more natural bond between individual and Earth. In this sense, we are all Earth First!ers.


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