Dubbed by Larry McMurtry as the “Thoreau of the West”, Edward Abbey was an author and philosopher whose work in defense of the environment was shaped in part by Henry Thoreau’s writing. Where Thoreau faced the scourge of slavery and was avidly abolitionist, Abbey’s great cause was the preservation of the natural world from continued encroachment and exploitation. Like Thoreau, Abbey was willing to allow for militant action to defend against the predation of the powerful upon the powerless.
Abbey summarized the purpose and tone of his writing in the following manner: “I write in a deliberately provocative and outrageous manner because I like to startle people. I hope to wake up people. I have no desire to simply soothe or please. I would rather risk making people angry than putting them to sleep. And I try to write in a style that’s entertaining as well as provocative. It’s hard for me to stay serious for more than half a page at a time.” He criticized Thoreau for an obsession with purity, but also considered Thoreau a kindred spirit (Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, 185-186). Where Abbey and Thoreau would find common cause are the lengths to which a person should go in pursuit of justice.
In The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey portrays a group of misfits who travel the southwestern United States engaging in ecological sabotage against encroaching industrial development, culminating in an attempt to the destroy the Glen Canyon Dam. The book is widely thought to have inspired the radical environmentalist group Earth First! as well as later groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. In “The Last Days of John Brown”, Thoreau defended the actions of John Brown to free slaves in the American South and arm them. Abbey distinguished between terrorism, which endangered the lives of people, and sabotage, which only threatened property. Abbey argued the former should be avoided, while the latter was acceptable for preventing injustice. As Doc Sarvis, a character from The Monkey Wrench Gang and its sequel Hayduke Lives, explains, the first rule of eco-sabotage is “”Nobody gets hurt. Nobody. Not even yourself.” In his Master’s thesis, “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence”, Abbey examined those anarchists who employed revolutionary violence and found them wanting in technique, for attacking human lives made scapegoats out of those who employed them. Abbey thus had to set limits where Thoreau did not.
To Thoreau, people were not property and this formed his opposition to slavery. Property, being sacrosanct in American culture, is a difficult thing to attack no matter the well-reasoned justifications. Thoreau and John Brown knew it. Abbey knew it, too. To Abbey, the wilderness was the abode of freedom, the refuge of humanity in the face of increasing technological dependency. Just as the Southern slave needed advocates for abolition, Abbey recognized the need to speak for the wild, long relegated to mere property for exploitation rather than something worth treasuring simply as it was and is. Both Abbey and Thoreau were critical of their societies and governments. Intent on speaking on behalf of the invisible elements upon which societies are built, Thoreau and Abbey challenged the status quo to enlarge the circle of justice to the unconsidered people and components of American democracy.