A Review of Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action by Mike Roselle with Josh Mahan, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
Along with book-inspired ramblings and historical, factual, and tactical explorations.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. And not just because it was free, ethically shoplifted (not by ME, of course!) from a major book-selling corporation that gobbles up independent booksellers. But because it should’ve been a great story with a radical environmental message that would inspire me to work even harder with my own writing–the only form of activism I can really participate in, given my disability. But I must be honest. Overall, I did not like the book. It has some positive elements, but it also has myriad overwhelmingly horrible elements that push it over the edge into the territory of more-harm-than-good.
I’ll start with the good aspects, since there are only a few; hoping that you’ll read through it all to get to the more important critiques. It was a quick read. Well-written most of the time. Tree Spiker, written in first-person, tells the story of Mike Roselle, who co-founded the radical environmental organization Earth First! (exclamation point mandatory!) with Dave Foreman and others in the early 1980s. He also founded or co-founded an impressive list of hotshot eco-organizations, such as The Ruckus Society and Rainforest Action Network (RAN). It was interesting to learn about the genesis of these groups. ‘Twas also fascinating to learn more about some of the victories gained by Earth First!, such as winning some amount of alleged protection in the Cove/Mallard Wilderness area in Idaho. Whether any of the victories are wholly worthwhile is debatable, as I will discuss later.
I liked how the book included a lot of ecological primers, you could call them: explanations, say, of why forests are vitally important for everyone, not just the animals who live there. And how the idea of “sustained-yield (in other words, sustainable) logging” is utterly fallacious. These almost make the book worth recommending to people not well-versed on ecology; however, the serious flaws of the book convince me that it would be much more worthwhile to recommend books that delineate ecological issues, but then do not come to faulty conclusions, as Tree Spiker does. Books by dudes like Edward Abbey and Derrick Jensen. Lastly in terms of positive aspects, it was very intriguing to learn about some of the intricacies of different campaigns. For example, the unabashed violence of “timber” workers: “Loggers were shooting any red-cockaded woodpecker they encountered on the job…Speak out at a public hearing, and your dog will be shot or poisoned, roofing nails may be thrown on your driveway, your car windows shot out, and your children harassed at school.” (emphasis mine) It’s good to see that he included evidence that the essential totality of the violence surrounding environmentalists flows in one direction; that is to say, against them (see Premise Four at the beginning of Derrick Jensen’s crucial two-volume work, Endgame). It was also nice to see a good practical response to this violence: “They intimidated us. We intimidated them. Rick Valois and the Eco-Rangers, complete with military uniforms, volunteered to guard the road [leading to the Cove/Mallard activists‘ outdoor headquarters] and our camp against any attacks from the loggers” (page 158). This is a great example set for those who care about life on the planet. Corporate/Government thugs (if you can tell them apart) and psychotic brainwashed members of the dominant culture will be prepared and even gleeful at every opportunity to physically assault us, especially as the collapse of industrial civilization hastens and accountability is reduced even further than it already has been. We need to be prepared to defend ourselves by a variety of methods. Unfortunately the organizers disallowed the Eco Rangers from carrying firearms, even though it was on private property owned by one of the environmentalists, and therefore wouldn’t have even been illegal!
Now on to the really big issues I had with the book. There are so many flaws that I could easily fill pages, but I’ll stick to the really big ones. First off, he staunchly speaks out against the tactic of spiking trees to try to prevent them from being logged. Even though he did it himself–successfully, I might add–on multiple occasions. With just a couple hours of work, he and his partners in “crime” were able to stop timber sales that would’ve in all likelihood taken literally hundreds or thousands of person-hours to stop through legal channels. It worked. Certainly not all the time, not even most of the time, but it worked. And let’s not forget that the vast majority–an embarrassing majority–of legal attempts to stop the destruction of the natural world fail. And that when they do succeed, they take absolutely enormous amounts of people and time invested, as opposed to sabotage, which can take a handful or even sometimes just one person, and only a matter of hours rather than months or year. With so much destruction going on, to the point where every body of water on the planet is contaminated with man-made toxic chemicals, and runaway global climate change is imminent, and there is a remote area of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the United States where particles of plastic out-volume plankton by a ratio of 5 to 1, we don’t have the fucking TIME to be polite and ask nicely and remain unequivocally within the bounds of the laws created by those who are profiting from the destruction of the planet. We have to do whatever it takes. All of our lives are at stake, and the lives of future generations, and the lives of countless nonhuman species threatened with extinction. Roselle sites the example of one single mill worker in Cloverdale, California (the book says Hopland, but it was actually Cloverdale–being a Mendocino County resident, I’m allowed to split hairs here) who was seriously injured when a spike snapped the band saw with which he was slicing a tree. So what that the worker, George Alexander, blames not environmentalists for the incident, but his company: “Cracks had begun appearing in the band saw blade, and the blade was wobbling when it ran. But when George and other workers complained, foreman Dick [how fitting] Edwards shined them on, saying the new blades were not in yet, and they would have to make do. ‘That blade was getting so bad,’ said George, ‘that I almost didn’t go to work that day.’” (Timber Wars, Judi Bari 1994). And it is widely accepted for a number of reasons that the spiking was not done by an eco-radical, but by a disgruntled local Republican. And yet still Roselle uses this incident as the primary reason to disavow tree-spiking. If it sounds nonsensical to you, I think you’re onto something.
Yes, there is a chance that with sabotage somebody might be injured (though precautions are always taken to avoid just such a thing), even though both the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) have never killed a human being, and the worst harm ever done was when an ALF member in the U.K. gave a security guard a bloody nose with a punch (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Keith Mann, Puppy Pincher Press, 2007–an amazing, fascinating book that explores the historical growth and actions of the ALF–see http://www.fromdusktildawn.org.uk/). And these are the two underground organizations the U.S. Government calls THE #1 DOMESTIC TERRORIST THREAT. Think maybe it has something to do with the fact that they’re targeting, very effectively I might add, profits rather than people? It rather starkly demonstrates their priorities. So while there is that tiny risk that somebody might be hurt, if effective action is not taken to prevent the catastrophic collapse of ecosystems the world over, every single human and nonhuman on the planet will be harmed and/or killed. How convenient that Roselle does not take these things into account and then try to refute them, or even mention them. It’s a common tactic utilized when a person knows they are standing on shaky ideological grounds. Judi Bari (rest her soul) did it when denouncing tree-spiking in her book Timber Wars. And Roselle follows suit and does it here. But he sure does take advantage of the sensationalism of tree-spiking to try and sell more books. For fuck’s sake, he NAMED THE GODDAMN BOOK AFTER IT!! Fer shame!
There was one offhand remark relatively early on that was insulting to women and offensive even to me as a male. To me it spoke volumes about Mike Roselle’s personal worldview, of which he thinks so highly. At one point in his life someone offers him a job doing anti-nuke activism in Nevada. He lists two reasons for declining that offer. The first is that he spent a lot of time in Vegas before, and didn’t want to work out of a cheap motel. The second is that, “[his] girlfriend , Claire Greensfelder, had just been hired to coordinate the Greenpeace Nuke campaign. She would be my boss.” OH THE HORROR!! A WOMAN, BEING THE BOSS OF A MAN! HEAVEN ON EARTH FORBID!! Ugh. The patriarchal mindset embodied here is just revolting, and for those two sentences alone he deserves not a single book sale. Unfortunately it goes far, far beyond that.
His chapter about the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, which would come to be known as the Battle in Seattle, is laughable. Almost as laughable–almost–as the chapter that follows it, which is about the ELF. First, he derides the militant confrontation inspired by the Black Bloc (which he erroneously spells “Black Block” every time) anarchists: “Images of black-clad, bandanna-wearing anarchists throwing rocks at Starbucks windows came to define the event, pushing any other issue by the wayside” (page 230). And…um…so fucking what! Sometimes only sensational images can wake people up from their television and culture-induced, zombie-like stupor. The fact of the matter is that it drew huge international attention to the event. People are still talking about it over a decade later. For christ’s sake, a mainstream movie about the protests that got released in theaters came out just a couple years ago. Called…well whatta ya know, Battle in Seattle. And yes, it did cover the issues, not just the property destruction. That protest will start showing up in history textbooks if it hasn’t already. How many protests can that be said about? Had it been just another boring, dime-a-dozen, peaceful, sign-waving, chanting protest, it would’ve been lucky to receive a tenth of the media attention, and it would’ve disappeared from the collective consciousness almost immediately–if it even made it there in the first place. Even more importantly, beyond showing that a lot of people were really fucking angry with the state of the world, it showed that fighting back was an option. Something we need more and more every single day. At the end of the chapter, Roselle displays his total ignorance and proves that he doesn’t know a goddamn thing about what he is taking such a strong stance on. Referring to anti-war protestors, he says, “They only called for U.S. troops to pull out and let the region sink into real anarchy” (pgs. 230-231). This shows two things. First, that he is fine with the mass murder of innocent brown-skinned civilians, which would continue every day the wars did. Second, it shows that he doesn’t even know what the word anarchy even means! His knowledge of anarchism seems to come solely from popular mainstream media (e.g. Heath Ledger’s Joker saying, “But introduce a little…ANARCHY!). Guess what, genius: anarchy is not a synonym for chaos. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It would actually be wonderful if Iraq and Afghanistan became regions of “real anarchy.” It would mean total self-governance, egalitarian decision-making, an end to patriarchy and violence toward women, an end to oppression, and so on. Like I said–laughable. The next chapter shows that, sadly, his ignorance goes even deeper.
It starts at the very beginning–with the chapter title: “Green Scare–The Brief and Brutal Career of the ELF.” This tries to slide at least two premises right on by us. But slow down just a second there, Mikey. He uses the word “brief.” This presupposes first that the ELF’s “career” was…well…brief. That it only lasted a very short time. Well shit, last time I checked, people were still performing sabotage under the rubric of the Earth Liberation Front all over the world. Last I checked, they had a press office to disseminate their communiqués and defend their actions to the media. Hell, some folks have just recently started up a environmental journal focusing largely on the ELF (Resistance: Journal of the Earth Liberation Movement, see http://www.resistancemagazine.org/)! He later says that Bill “Avalon” Rodgers, who was involved in some of the more spectacular ELF actions, such as the torching of a Veil ski resort that caused some $12,000,000 (yup, 12 million) in damages, “had recruited a cell for a group he called the Earth Liberation Front (pgs. 235-236, emphasis mine). Funny, the ELF started around 1992 in England as a more radical off-shoot of Earth First!, by people who were tired with the same old tactics and felt the need to step things up. I’m fairly certain Avalon was not in the U.K. in the early 90s convincing Earth First!ers to move in a more militant direction. It’s also highly debatable that Avalon recruited the ELF members who were later involved in the government’s “Operation Backfire” roundup. I’ve read a lot on the matter, and never seen any solid evidence he was any kind of leader. It is, after all, a leaderless organization by design! Not so “brief,” then, is it? Then that other word…“brutal.” He also calls that particular cell’s actions “altogether more violent than anything that had ever been done in the name of the environment before.” Really? How about the dozens of BOMBINGS that took place against a water pipeline in the Owens Valley of California that was stealing water from the valley for Los Angeles in the 1920s? The ELF never used a single bomb, only incendiary devices.
Roselle also claims, “In no instance have I seen or suspected a coordinated attempt by the federal government to disrupt the environmental movement” (page. 238). Somebody’s gotta get this guy in the motherfuckin loop! Does he live in a Unabomber cabin in the Appalachian wilderness or something? How about the case of undercover FBI provocateur “Anna,” who infiltrated a group of environmentalists and entrapped Eric McDavid, landing him a 22-odd year prison sentence (see http://supporteric.org/), or the government’s attempt to infiltrate vegan fucking potlucks!? (see http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/fbi-informant-vegan-potluck/437/ from Will Potter‘s wonderful site, Green Is the New Red).
He says, “The new anarchists lacked a commitment to, and an understanding of, nonviolence” (page 234). And yet he mentions at one point that several of the ELF members had attended his Ruckus Society’s nonviolence trainings. Apparently their lessons didn’t stick? LOL! Or better yet, I would not be at all surprised if those bullshit nonviolence trainings were the thing that finally pushed them over the edge toward militant direct action! What a lovely irony that would be. Later on in the very paragraph about their lacking a commitment to nonviolence, Roselle says, “…there was no room for anyone who did not conform to their rigid set of principles and worldview.” Wow, kind of sounds like him with the nonviolence thing, doesn’t it? He even invokes the legacy of MLK and Gandhi to show why nonviolence is morally paramount and effective. But of course, he ignores the totality of factors that led to those individuals’ success. That, for example, the United States was stuck in a quagmire in Vietnam during MLK’s busiest era, and therefore had much fewer troops and resources and energy to expend fighting blacks in America. Ditto that for Britain during Gandhi’s time. For a thorough debunking of the myth of nonviolence as the only thing that has ever achieved anything in social justice movements, see Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill. Man alive, I can’t believe this guy got picked up by a major publisher. Then again, maybe it makes a lot of sense. Not exactly a bunch of eco-radicals and historians over there at St. Martin’s, I’m wildly guessing. It also makes me even more depressed that I have such trouble getting my books represented by an agent or published. “The food was vegan,” he says, again in the very same paragraph, “the music hip-hop, and clothes black. Tattoos and piercing were required.” Hm. I’m not going to spend much time on this embarrassing nonsense, but being a (green) anarchist myself, I’ve been to a fair number of anarchist events and gatherings. There seems to always be non-vegan food present (though not non-vegetarian, thankfully). I’ve heard all kinds of music there. And I have no tattoos or piercings. They didn’t check my body upon entering for these things, so apparently they aren’t so required. I literally lol’d (laughed out loud) when I read that. The final joke and insult was a two-pronged verbal assault on the ELF: first Roselle says that, “They wanted everything the easy way” (pg. 238). Oh my. Call me a crazy bastard, but I don’t think–now I could be wrong, but I do not think that committing multiple serious felonies with no statutes of limitations, setting fires that caused millions of dollars in damages, and risking life sentences in prison is the goddamn fucking EASY WAY OUT. Finally, the closing sentence of the pathetic chapter: “In the end, it takes more courage to sit in front of a bulldozer than it does to burn one” (page 238). I actually had to write LMFAO! in the margin on that one. Do I even need to delve into that one? If you’ve made it this far, I hope not. Just see the previous example.
In short, he holds his nose up so high at those with differing viewpoints that you can see far more of the man that you want to; his nose hair, his boogers, maybe even his comparatively small brain peeking down at you. For every positive aspect, there are 5 or more negative ones. And in the end, I think it is a book more harmful to the environmental movement than helpful–mainly because it encourages the kind of nonviolent dogma in our actions that is leading us straight into ecological Armageddon. We need to utilize effective tactics that actually start to unravel the systems of power and destruction, not concern ourselves with moral purity.
I apologize for the length (wow, that may be the first time I’ve ever used those words together–alright, a teeny weenie joke!). But it started as a book review and morphed into something more, a sort of diatribe against nonviolent dogma and in defense of effective action, and the crucial nature thereof.