The Radicals: How Extreme Environmentalists Are Made

They chain themselves to trees and sabotage bulldozers. But behind their united front, many eco-warriors have very personal -- and conflicting -- reasons for devoting their lives to the cause.


Two protesters pull up a drawbridge to block loggers from entering Oregon's Willamette National Forest. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

Sitting in the woods one day at the age of 15, Christopher Irwin wasn't thinking about the environment. He was thinking about suicide. For a meticulous teenager with an inclination toward precise planning, the logistics weren't a problem: nearly everyone he knew in his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, owned a gun. If that weren't enough, his house was filled with an abundance of prescription pain medications.

The pills belonged to his stepfather who was losing a fight with prostate cancer. Irwin's mother had decided she would home-care her husband, and for two years she served as his nurse. With his condition deteriorating and his pain escalating, medications littered their home.

"He begged my mother to overdose him," Irwin recalls. Irwin's bedroom shared a wall with his parents, and he could hear their arguments -- the constant, desperate pleas of a man dying in severe pain. Irwin did the only thing he could: escape. On weekdays, the boy would grab two slices of toast and down a glass of Tang. Once out the door, he did his best to avoid returning. "I lived in the library, and when Friday came, I'd grab my backpack and head for the woods."

It was on one of his weekend getaways that Irwin found himself sitting in a clearing contemplating suicide. It was difficult to stop thinking about his stepfather. The doctors believed the cancer was the result of his years spent working as a chemical engineer for Union Carbide. Irwin wasn't a doctor, but he knew that when his stepfather came home from work he'd immediately jump in the shower to get the thick layer of chemicals off his skin. And now, when he thought of the cries of pain waiting for him at home, suicide seemed like a good option.

"I heard the trees rustling, and I decided to kill myself. I knew where I was going to go, and what I was going to do."

But something made Irwin pause. "If I'm going to end it, I might as well do something with my life," he told himself. That something became obvious once he looked around him. "I decided that yeah, I liked these trees, and that there were some people who were trying to fuck with them, so that instead of suicide I could try fighting those people. Instead of turning to suicide, I turned to protest."

Irwin's brother Brian recalls seeing a change in Irwin after that. "He was much more reflective, somewhat stormy, he definitely turned inward. I guess he confronted his demons."

Nearly 30 years later, that same conviction is on display in Irwin every Tuesday night when he joins a group of like-minded activists at Barley's Tap Room in the Old Town section of Knoxville, Tennessee. They all believe in some form of radical environmentalism. Most don't have life and death stories of "conversion," but many can point to a moment, a "wilderness experience" as they call it, that convinced them to commit their lives to protecting the environment.

These epiphanies are often reminiscent of spiritual awakenings, according to Dr. Harold Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University who specializes in moral decision-making and affinity with the outdoors. "The similarities between [activists' moments of] commitment and religious conversion is astounding," Herzog observes. "Then there is the evangelism side, trying to convert others." The form this "evangelism" takes can often be traced back to an activist's own wilderness moment. This can cause friction in radical environmentalist movements -- as members argue for their own personal visions, infighting can ensue and leaders are regularly pushed out.

Irwin knows this all too well. Early in his new life as an environmentalist, he was drawn to an activist group called Earth First! Its co-founder Dave Foreman had experienced his own wilderness moment as a boy -- for Foreman, it arrived in the form of the New Mexico wolf. The first books he'd ever read on his own had been his mother's copies of Wildlife Illustrated and Wildlife of the World. He adored those two hardbound red volumes with their gold lettering and endless renderings of animals. Today he still handles them lovingly, always careful to set them down with both hands on a coffee table. They are still in pristine condition, the covers still attached and the pages bearing few marks. Whenever someone else handles these cherished items, Foreman's eyes stay fixed on the books.

Along with animals, Foreman loved the New Mexico wilderness. His father was a member of the military, so the family moved around a great deal, but every Christmas they would return to Albuquerque. "Being able to see the Sandia Mountains, it is sort of this beacon of wilderness. I just loved the mountain and looking at it," Foreman recalls. While his surroundings and friends changed from year to year, the New Mexico wilderness was a constant, an annual dose of stability.

His affinity with the Southwest drew him to the works of Ernest Thompson Seton, a trapper, naturalist and illustrator. It was while reading one of Seton's books that Foreman came to a sudden realization. "When my family moved to New Mexico at the turn of the century there were wolves in Mexico, and when I was born in 1946 they were gone," Seton says. He felt as though he had been cheated out of something and recalls being struck by "a sense of loss."

Years later, after stints working for more mainstream environmental organizations, Foreman co-founded Earth First! His experiences as an activist had thus far been frustrating and disheartening. Compromise was considered a necessary step for success, but after each small victory, the large-scale logging and resource-extraction carried on as always. "You thought well, we can't get more than that," says Foreman. "But with Earth First! We said screw that, we're going to ask for what we really want."

Initially the founders liked to refer to themselves as "Rednecks for Wilderness," a slogan that was quickly picked up by the media and caught the attention of many young people, including Irwin. It was a different breed of environmentalism, one focused on revelry and humor rather than elitist self-righteousness.

Indeed, the group's first successful action of the group had comedy at its core.

On March 21, 1981, a clear crisp early spring day, five people, struggling under the weight of a carefully rolled heap of black plastic, stumbled to the center of the Glen Canyon Dam and cast one side over the edge. The sheet was so long that it nearly reached the bottom of the dam, taking more than 20 seconds to unfurl. From a distance, the gray concrete of the dam now appeared to be "cracked" down the middle by a tapering width of black. The image would become an icon of the radical environmental movement.

But while the tactics of the organization were at first humorous, the group grabbed national attention through a type of industrial sabotage known as monkeywrenching . The term is a reference to The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey's 1975 book about radical environmentalists in the Southwest. 

By the time 1985 rolled around, Earth First! had gained notoriety for pouring sand into the crank cases of bulldozers, spiking trees with nails to ward off loggers, and pulling survey stakes to prevent road building. Adding to the discussion was Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, a 1985 book, edited by Foreman, that detailed various techniques and encouraged their use.

Foreman refused to back down from his radical stance even after George Alexander, a young mill worker from California, hit a tree "spike" as he was sawing through a trunk. A nail in the tree shattered the saw, sending pieces flying at the adjacent workers. Alexander escaped the incident without major injury, but with numerous lacerations and a broken jaw. When he was interviewed in his hospital with his head bandaged and his young wife by his side, he made an excellent victim in the eyes of the public. But Foreman stubbornly continued to support tree spiking and continued to show up in his cowboy boots to interviews, suggesting that the fight for wilderness was a war.

Presented by

Zachary Fryer-Biggs & Malcolm Cecil-Cockwell

Zachary Fryer-Biggs is a staff writer at Defense News. Malcolm Cecil-Cockwell, author of Objective Ecology, is a graduate student in forestry at the University of Toronto.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

Just In