Earth First? On “The Ecocentrists” and Pregnancy in the Anthropocene

By Lynne FeeleyAugust 30, 2019

Earth First? On “The Ecocentrists” and Pregnancy in the Anthropocene

The Ecocentrists by Keith Makoto Woodhouse

ON JANUARY 18, I felt an electric current an inch above my pelvic bone. I Googled can you feel when the egg implants, and the internet was conclusive that you cannot. While I could not be certain of what I felt, I was certain. Two weeks later, I told my sister about the volt of electricity. Of course, she said, I call it lightning crotch.

On February 11, I received The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, by Keith Makoto Woodhouse, in the mail. The Ecocentrists offers a detailed portrait of the rise of radical environmentalism in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. In Woodhouse’s account, we meet real-life monkeywrenchers, the historical Haydukes and Abbzugs of Earth First!, who placed their bodies in the way of bulldozers and sat in ancient redwoods. They dared chainsaw-wielding loggers to cut trees they had “spiked” with nails.

The title of Woodhouse’s book comes from the philosophy underpinning these actions. Sometimes called “biocentrism,” sometimes “deep ecology,” ecocentrism proposed that “human beings and human society held no greater moral value than did nonhuman species and ecological systems,” in Woodhouse’s words. It argued for the moral equivalency of people with trees and rivers. Ecocentrism emerged in the 1980s as a critique of the environmental movements that had come before, from the conservation efforts of the Sierra Club to the ecology movement of the New Left.

To ecocentrists, these movements were flawed philosophically, politically, and tactically. Philosophically, environmentalism had long been anthropocentric, or humanist, basing its goals and perceived successes around human health and happiness. Politically, it had been content to work within systems of liberalism and capitalism. Environmentalism had not truly challenged liberal tenets of individualism, humanism, and economic growth. And tactically, the commitment of environmentalism to working within established political systems made it woefully slow. For ecocentrists, none of this was adequate to the acute ecological crisis they claimed humans had caused.

The central, if understated, question of Woodhouse’s book is whether it is adequate now. In the field of environmental history, he writes, scholars have been engaged in deconstructing their own fundamental concepts. Not least of these is the concept of nature itself. Whereas environmental history once focused on untouched wilderness, the last two decades of scholarship have looked for nature beyond such landscapes, to cities, farms, suburbs, coal mines, and coastlines. It has deconstructed the idea that “humanity” and “nature” are separate or stable things. Instead, scholarship has centered on a hybrid and relational theory of ecology, one in which humans are part of the intricate web of being, not separate from it. Finally, recent work in environmental history has hedged against the declensionist narratives — that humans are a force outside of nature who are at work destroying it — that once defined it.

To Woodhouse, something similar has happened in certain corners of environmental politics. Some interpret the Anthropocene to be the expression of the inseparability of the human species from the “rest” of nature, and some interpret this to mean that there can therefore be no conflict between human activity and the interests of the planet. Right-wing politicians and friends of the oil industry twist this logic and take it even further, Woodhouse writes, as when Ronald Reagan compared oil spills to naturally occurring oil seepage. Llewellyn Rockwell, a right-wing libertarian, justified the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill by claiming that “oil is natural, it’s organic, and it’s biodegradable.” There is danger, too, Woodhouse suggests, in the discourse of resilience, as it can lead to a sense that humans are not so much destroying nature as they are reshaping it, and whatever humans do, nature will bounce back.

Woodhouse’s choice of subject — the ecocentrists — is as much an answer to these trends as anything else. The ecocentrists predate the deconstructionist turn in environmental history, and they contradict it. Foundational to their philosophy was the belief that not only was nature a thing apart from humans, but that in the age of industrial development, humanity and nature were locked in opposition to each other. Human domination had indeed sent nature into decline — crisis, even. The way forward would be paved (or unpaved, as it were) with an honest reckoning with human power and, somehow, the channeling of a worldwide will to dismantle it. In the era of climate change, Woodhouse wonders if the ecocentrists’ narrative of crisis is the only one that can create a clear-eyed view of the problem, as well as the political and popular will to mobilize against it. We might not be able to spike climate change the way Earth First! spiked trees, but is now the time for the ecocentrists’ posthumanist, anti-capitalist, and, at times, illiberal message?

From the time I received The Ecocentrists in February through March and early April, I read almost nothing. I went to work, and when I got home, I peeled off my clothes, shuffled into bed, and slept or watched the winter light dim, ill with overpowering fatigue. My sister told me it was mostly because I was growing a placenta. Human dramas were too complex for me, so I took to watching nature documentaries, Dynasties and Our Planet, where the plot lines seemed, at first, simpler: a lioness does anything to protect her cubs; emperor penguins huddle against the harshest winter on Earth to keep their young alive. But even here there were narrative complexities. Mothers turned against mothers, mothers left cubs for dead, aggrieved mothers stole other mothers’ babies. Then, of course, there was the biggest complexity of all, the invisible frame around the genre’s decade-long surge: that all of it will be gone. Dynasties erased. “Our” planet rendered uninhabitable.

Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists is a history of this feeling of impending doom. The ecocentrism of the 1980s is descended from what Woodhouse calls the “crisis environmentalism” of the 1970s. Crisis environmentalists rebuked unchecked economic growth and consumerism, arguing that so-called prosperity, defined as affluence, came at devastating cost to the planet. They claimed that midcentury economic expansion had degraded the natural world to such an extent that environmental crisis was not some far-off scenario — it was happening now.

Following Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 publication of The Population Bomb, one offshoot of crisis environmentalism became focused on overpopulation. That same year, Charles Remington and Richard Bowers founded Zero Population Growth (ZPG). For ZPG, population growth was the planet’s primary environmental threat. If it was not curtailed, ZPG argued, Earth would experience widespread ecological collapse, the result of billions of humans exceeding the planet’s finite carrying capacity. Slowing down population growth — even bringing it to zero, as the group’s name suggested — was the only way to halt what was already coming.

While at times ZPG aligned with women’s liberation around abortion rights, the group’s racial and class politics were roundly criticized by the left. Overpopulationists were seen to blame nonwhite, non-Western people for the so-called population bomb. As Woodhouse writes, the racism of the overpopulation debate sometimes stemmed from what he calls “holism,” or the idea that all of humanity, not certain subsets of it, was equally to blame for planetary degradation. Holism obscured the fact the people’s habits of consumption and resource use mattered more when it came to environmental destruction than sheer numbers — and on that count, the racial capitalism of the West had caused far more damage than any numeric population growth of the Global South. Yet sometimes the racism of overpopulation was much more direct, as when Ehrlich opened The Population Bomb with a racist caricature of an overcrowded Indian city street. The overpopulation debate also coincided with the rise of the Black Panthers and the implementation of community survival programs, which exposed the racial politics of whose families had historically been allowed to grow, and whose populations had been suppressed by centuries of violence and terror — or grown by the same means.

There was also controversy over how, exactly, ZPG proposed to curb population growth. The group emphasized individual self-restraint and family planning and disavowed state-enforced limits on family size, but the specter of authoritarianism still hung over it. Yet ZPG did not have to be proposing quotas on family size to be proposing something deeply oppositional to liberal capitalism: limits on family, consumption, and unchecked economic growth, in the name of the planet.

In the last few years, my dad has begun to stockpile supplies in case of a climate emergency. We tell him that, relatively speaking, upstate New York isn’t in much danger. Jugs of water, canned goods, first-aid kits, solar-rechargeable lanterns, and a generator have nonetheless appeared in my parents’ basement. Similar constellations have shown up in the trunks of their cars, and he’s begun to give us these items for Christmas. But the latest theme in his climate worry are his grandchildren — one in Florida and one on the way in the great earthquake zone of the Pacific Northwest. He’s read all the news about how the limestone in Florida harbors water inside its permeable body, and how the rise in sea level at the coasts has begun to trap the freshwater inland, causing it to back up into municipal drains and spill over into neighborhoods. He knows that in 50 years, or 30, the streets and hotel lobbies of Miami Beach will be submerged. He wants my sister to leave the state. The crisis is now.

There was so much that was reprehensible about crisis environmentalism, but it is hard to hear my sister talk about alligators washing up in their storm drains from the Everglades, or watching her flee Hurricane Irma, without feeling that crisis environmentalism was at least right about the crisis part of its claim — or it certainly is now. It’s impossible to hear about children suing the state for forfeiting their future and not call to mind crisis environmentalism’s sense of impending doom. As Woodhouse’s skillful treatment of crisis environmentalism makes clear, in the era of climate change, it is not so much a question of whether crisis as it is a question of crisis by whom. A crisis for whom?

The ecocentrists of Woodhouse’s book inherited their 1970s predecessors’ sense of crisis. They came together under the banner of Earth First!, a dispersed network of activists whose aim was to oppose industrial development not through institutionalized politicking in the style of the Sierra Club but through direct confrontation. Because Earth First! was never an official organization, Woodhouse points out the difficulty of saying that it was “founded.” But it was named, in 1980, by a group of male activists who had each tried his hand in mainstream environmental organizations: Dave Foreman, Ron Kezar, Bart Koehler, Mike Roselle, and Howie Wolke. Acolytes of Edward Abbey, the men committed to a “no-holds-barred form of environmental advocacy,” Woodhouse writes.

Of greatest concern for these early Earth First!ers was the industrial development of the American Southwest. They had a special hatred for Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. In the early 1950s, the Sierra Club had gained national attention by fighting a dam proposed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) in Dinosaur National Monument. The dam in Dinosaur was to be one of 10 in the larger effort to develop the Colorado River. While the Sierra Club did defeat the dam in Dinosaur, its myopia and exceptionalization of the site led other places to be neglected and then summarily dammed. To Earth First!, this was exactly what had happened at Glen Canyon. Glen Canyon Dam represented both an environmental tragedy and the philosophical and tactical failures of mainstream environmental groups.

Soon their attention turned to the old growth forests of Washington, Oregon, and California, where activists went head to head with loggers. They blockaded logging roads and sabotaged bulldozers, sat in giant Sequoias, and spiked trees. By putting their own bodies in the way of lethal machines, and by threatening the lives of loggers, Earth First! activists lived out their ecocentric philosophy: who says that a person’s life is more valuable than a tree’s?

It wasn’t long before Earth First! found itself embroiled in political controversy that in many ways mirrored that of crisis environmentalism. The central claim of ecocentrism — that human and nonhuman beings were morally equivalent — brought accusations of misanthropy down on the group. The group’s broad, unnuanced claims about “humanity” causing environmental harm also recapitulated the holism of crisis environmentalism and its offshoot overpopulationists, repeating their blindness to the disproportionate damage caused by the white American capitalist elite.

But it was the outwardly xenophobic, racist, and homophobic comments by some members of Earth First! that led the “social ecologist” Murray Bookchin to label the group’s members as “social reactionaries.” In 1986, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman said in an interview that the United States should not give aid to the starving people of Ethiopia but, rather, “let nature seek its own balance,” and he argued against immigration because it put “more pressure on the resources” of the United States. (Edward Abbey agreed with this position on immigration.) And in a 1987 issue of Earth First! Journal, Christopher Manes, writing under the pseudonym Miss Ann Thropy, wrote that the AIDS epidemic might solve the problem of overpopulation.

Bookchin publicly disavowed these comments, but his critique of ecocentrism ran deeper still. In The Ecology of Freedom (1982), Bookchin argued that the domination of nature was a secondary phenomenon to the domination of humans by other humans. It was an outgrowth of human hierarchy. Abolishing hierarchy from human society would simultaneously root out human domination over nature. Bookchin laid bare the criticism that ecocentrism, and environmentalism more generally, had received from those on the radical left struggling for social justice: that Earth First! had the timeline of justice exactly backward. Liberate the people and the trees will follow.

In his discussion of Bookchin and the radical left’s critique of Earth First!, Woodhouse does mention ecofeminism, but he spends only a few brief paragraphs on it. Ecofeminists of the late 1970s, such as Carolyn Merchant and Mary Daly, argued that men’s will to dominate nature stemmed from their domination of women. In this they were not unlike Bookchin, who looked for the root cause of environmental degradation in the power structures of human society. For ecofeminists, environmental destruction could be traced back to patriarchy, which taught men to treat both women and nature as property, destined to serve them.

In a book whose subtitle is “A History of Radical Environmentalism,” and one which takes a particular focus on the 1970s and ’80s, it is hard to understand why ecofeminism does not receive fuller treatment, except by resorting to the narrow definition Woodhouse has given “radical environmentalism” — ecocentrism. But in defining radical environmentalism this way, and in hewing his narrative closely to ecocentrist activists, Woodhouse misses the opportunity to at least comment on the overwhelmingly male cast of characters in his book. The Ecocentrists is not without women: Woodhouse highlights Judi Bari’s career as a leader among California Earth First!ers, for example. But the involvement of individual women within Earth First!, and Woodhouse’s mentioning of some of them, should not deflect from the exclusionary masculinity of environmentalism from the Sierra Club to Earth First! or the exclusion of women from Woodhouse’s history.

As I read The Ecocentrists over the early months of my first pregnancy, it was hard not to wonder what the mothers were doing. This is not to say that women and mothers and fathers were not at the front lines of Earth First! actions. It is to ask something deeper: Where does motherhood fall in the history of radical environmentalism? If radical environmentalism is defined strictly as ecocentrism, that nonhuman beings should receive the same moral and political consideration as persons, or babies, how can the mother be an ecocentrist? Can they? As I watched my baby hiccup on an ultrasound for the first time, I felt that I was exactly the wrong person to be reviewing The Ecocentrists. For I have never been so sensitive to the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene and yet simultaneously so reflexively, stupidly humanist.

In April, the three of us, me, my spouse, and the baby, went to the Grand Canyon. I had never seen it before. The first afternoon we were there, I vacillated between breathless wonder at the canyon and visceral panic at my fellow tourists climbing over fences to take selfies at the cliff’s edge. We had read about the three deaths by falling that had occurred over the two weeks prior, and every time I saw a parent send a child over the rail for the perfect picture, or a teenager prop herself as the edge and let her ponytail down into the wind, my stomach lurched for their human safety.

But the next morning, the three of us were mostly alone. The rising sun made a marble eddy of amethyst and salmon. Incrementally the canyon unshadowed. I sat on the low rock wall separating us from the edge and took pictures with my phone that I knew would never turn out. The baby, whose kicks were just becoming more frequent and more distinct, started to move. I could tell she was waking up. There is great strife between the canyon and child, but I couldn’t quite conjure it in that moment. But I did know that the view of the Anthropocene looked different over a pregnant belly.


Lynne Feeley is a writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Environmental History, and Avidly.

LARB Contributor

Lynne Feeley is a writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Lapham's Quarterly, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in English from Duke.


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